Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Prague, Czech Republic

For the last big adventure we headed to Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic. Prague is renowned for being this super-hip place to vacation for Europeans, especially for groups of drunken Brits doing their whole bachelor/bachelorette party thing (they call them "stag and hen parties", which is much cooler in my mind). We flew again from Cologne and got there in about an hour (its just east of Munich/Vienna and south of Poland if you didn't know...I had to look it up). We stayed in a pretty nice hotel right near the center of the old town that used to be a stable, medieval gothic home, government building, and brothel. The central square in the old part of Prague has this really cool astronomical clock from the 15th century (it must have had upgrades given the sophisticated map of the earth it now incorporates). On the hour, the little statues around it toll the bells and small apostle figures rotate through now-opened doors above it and wave to the enormous crowds that gather to see it. Its incredibly anticlimatic, but people always clapped like idiots. I read later that the statues around the clock represent 4 things Czechs apparently despise: death, vanity, Jews, and Turks. Ah...nothing like xenophobic/antisemitic history for you. Also in the square is the landmark "Our Lady on Tyne" Church (or some shit like that). Sadly, the visiting hours were totally arbitrary and we didn't get in to see the grave of the famous astronomer Tycho Brahe (you know, the one who had a metal nose because his real one was cut off in a duel...and the one who died because he drank so much and "held it" in the company of the king that his bladder burst and caused a major infection).

Probably the most remarkable thing about Prague was the architecture. Literally everywhere you looked the buildings were beautifully ornate, with tons of detailed sculptures all over the place and often even full-color murals on them. If you could focus on looking up and around and not on trying not to wipe out on the cobblestones, you'd constantly be amazed by your surroundings. I took more pictures here than anywhere else in Europe (0.5 GB) because of this simple fact. On top of that, there's a nice river that bends around the city (the Vltava) that is especially photogenic at sunset. The bridges across it offer particularly nice vantage points for photos, and are a good place to people-watch.

On a hilltop on the opposite side of the river sits the enormous Prague Castle, the largest medieval castle in the world. From the exterior its not all that impressive until you're up close and can appreciate how big it is. Inside is a pretty incredible history museum documenting the last millenium or so of Prague's royalty, wars, and even general day-to-day life and culture. Many graves were found inside, including a very interesting "soldier's grave" containing the best preserved medieval sword ever found. Apparently even long after Christianity was introduced, people (and even royalty) were buried bound, joints dislocated, and covered in heavy rocks. Can't risk any zombies in Prague, I guess. The other part of the main castle building I thought was really cool was a collection of extremely old (maybe 600 years) books in a library-like room. They were huge bound things, probably hand-transcribed. In the courtyards there's a medieval monastery and nunnery with a bunch of old art, etc. (too lazy to see in detail). One of the corner towers had a "museum" about torture devices, and there was someone demonstrating blacksmith techniques. All very interesting. But, the gem of the castle is undoubtedly the enormous St. Vitus cathedral. This thing dominates the castle skyline, with its to dark towers ascending probably 10 stories. It is very similar to the Dom in Cologne, Germany (smaller) architecture-wise, with remarkably ornate stone exterior that looks like its just dripping with decoration. There's even a big golden metal-work on the side, along with ornate exterior murals, etc. The interior was very pretty, with stained-glass windows washing the walls in bright red and purple. Probably the most interesting part inside was the tomb of the beloved Bohemian "Good" King Wenceslas (as in the Christmas carol...funnily enough, there was a "Bad" King Wenceslas in the region several hundred years later), from the 11th century (that could be wrong).

Prague's Jewish quarter attracts tons of tourists to see its many synagogues and museums telling the story of 1000 years of local Jewish history. The museums were really fascinating, with a lot of rare information on such a long European history in the Bohemian and Monrovian kingdoms. Why does it still exist after so much war, etc.? Sickly enough, the Nazis were intentionally collecting all this information to create a museum of an "extinct race" here after they had destroyed all of Europe's Jews. The "Old-New" synagogue was particularly interesting. Created in the early 13th century, the building still stands and still holds services (when a minyan is available, usually thanks to tourists). Jackie described it best when she said that standing inside you can really appreciate that this place is extremely old (and yet remarkably similar to the more modern synagogues we've visited in eastern Europe). Once constituting 20% of Prague's population, more than 2/3 of Prague's 75,000 Jews were killed in the Holocaust, and today less than 2000 still live there (most of the rest of Czechoslovakia's rural Jews were killed or immigrated to Israel). The highlight of the Jewish quarter was undoubtedly the old cemetary, started in the 14th century and currently containing more than 12,000 graves. Its so old that the graves are all kinda tumbling on top of one another...its eerily beautiful. Inside is the grave of the "Maharal", Rabbi Low, who supposedly fashioned a living being from clay to protect Prague's Jews: the "Golem". This is really a charming (a bit depressing) fairy tale of Prague, but in some sense its one of my favorites. I bought a Golem coffee mug to use at my new job.

Oh, and finally some food facts. Food was heavy...often served with "dumplings" made of some extraordinarily dense, chewy combination of bread and potato and covered with gravy. Not a big fan. I had some good duck leg, stewed rabbit, and trout though. The beer (Pilsner Urquell, of course) was excellent and very cheap (~1 euro per 0.5L) in restaurants and bars. There were tons of pizza, pasta, and gelati places because Prague is loaded with Italian tourists. And this is where I say: "fuck you italian people. I hate you." Ask me another time...

Check out the additional photos by clicking here, or the sidelink.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Brussels, Belgium

Before I came to Europe, I had these grandiose plans to visit the European microstates (like Lichtenstein, Andorra, Monaco, etc.). That is, until I realized they're really just tax-free shopping malls and estates for rich Europeans. So, the ideal compromise in my mind is Belgium. To get there, we took a cheap express train to Brussels, via Cologne and Liege. Apparently trains are some kind of Sean anesthetic...they make me so sleepy (unlike any other transportation system). The ride was very nice (when I was conscious)...Belgium is somehow much prettier than Germany. We spent an hour walking to our hotel in the center of the old city, when it should've taken about 15 minutes. This is my first formal, official complaint to Lonely Planet: your Brussels maps suck balls. In fact, I've noticed that the map quality in that series dramatically improves if you get the "Best of" books, rather than the more detailed full-country tomes. That's retarded.

Anyway, we eventually found our nice (and cheap!) hotel right next to the Grand Place, a nice courtyard/plaza ringed by a series of 17th century guild halls (like the brewers, archers, etc.). It was so picturesque that a disproportionate fraction of my Belgium pictures were taken here, at a variety of light levels. To be fair, we didn't come to Brussels to see the sights...we came to eat (mussels, frites, chocolates, waffles) and drink beer. So, for lunch we ate a kilo of steamed mussels each, some pommes frites (enh), and pilsner. Hooray for Belgium! We spent the afternoon wandering around in the old part of town, checking out the Grand Place, the royal palace and Bruxolles Park, and various statues, etc. Most important was Mannekin Pis, a little boy peeing. This is a pretty famous fountain, and what surprised me most was how incredibly small it was. While I appreciate the artist keeping it life-size, I was a bit confused why the little boy was totally ripped. This is a 4-year-old with giant abs, quads, etc. What the hell? Most people don't know it, but there's a little girl version too, squatting in the wall in some back-alley across the way from the Delerium Tremens cafe (mmm....pink elephant beer). Oddly enough, she's also ripped.

Anyway, we stopped off in the afternoon at the "Mort Subite", a beer bar near our hotel. This place really intrigued me: it looked and felt like your typical European cafe. Bright, airy, happy service. The only difference: everyone's drinking beer...only beer. Heaven? I had a couple of trappist beers, and Jackie enjoyed the lambics (I'll have a beer post explaining this all later). We grabbed a light-ish dinner, picked up some Belgian chocolates (that were so good your knees kinda buckle), and walked around for a while before ducking into this little hole-in-the-wall (literally) bar for some more beer. The next day we spent checking out some churches, the national art gallery (nice surrealist stuff in the basement: that is, the -8th floor....I felt like I should've been dropping bread crumbs to find my way out again), and the "museum" inside the Royal Palace. This latter adventure was very strange. The tour starts off like you'd expect...you know, a royal palace-y place. Gold trim, crystal chandeliers, beautiful art, woodworking, etc. Then, all of a sudden there's this room touting this Antarctic science project run by Belgian scientists...complete with animatronic people, fake snow, etc. What the hell? The exhibits become progressively more art gallery (shitty stuff), until we finally get to the room we came for in the first place. This palace is only open in the summer, and it has a room where the ceiling is a giant mural made up solely of iridiscent beetle wings from Thailand. It was a pretty spectacular blue or green (depending on the angle you looked at it), and was creepily large (it had to be 75 feet long and 25+ feet wide). That's a lot of dead beetles. Even stranger, the room was filled with physics demos. Why? I don't know. Belgium is fucking weird.

Anyway, now time for a little story about lunch that day. We beat the rush and sat down around 12:30 at this little restaurant on this cobbled lane lined with seafood places. There was another full table next to us. As usual, we ordered big pots of mussels and pommes frites and beer. Our waiter goes up a winding iron staircase in the back to deliver our order. A few minutes later he comes bolting down the stairs with another guy after him, lunging at him. At the bottom of the stairwell he gets jump-kicked (like Double Dragon-style) and tries to run through the bar. The attacker chases after him - throws a vicious uppercut right into his butt - and continues to punch and kick through the bar (I'm now watching this via the mirrored walls). The waiter is tossed through a bunch of glasses that fall and break and finally turns to defend himself from the blows in the doorway leading to the bathroom. He still eats a few punches and kicks (these guys fight like 8-year-olds), and convinces the attacker not to break a bottle and stab him. Eventually, someone drags the attacker away. It was fascinating, and pretty funny in retrospect. After he staunched the bleeding from his hand, the waiter smoothed out his shirt and continued to invite new guests in. I'm assuming they were brothers. Again, Belgium is fucking weird.

We had dinner at a Congolese place (remember? Belgium was a colonial power in Africa too!) and more beers at the Mort Subite. Before leaving the next day, we walked around a bit more, had the best mussels of the trip for lunch (and snails...mmm), and then walked down to the Cantillon brewery near the train station. For a few euros, you get this incredible tour of one of the last breweries anywhere to make authentic lambic-style beer, and a couple free sample glasses. It was really way more interesting than I thought it would be, and I promise to explain more in an all-encompassing beer post sometime soon.

To summarize, Belgium was a rather odd place. But, it was gastronomically excellent, and the beer is better than anywhere else on Earth....there, I said it. If I had to live in Europe, it might be in Brussels.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Budapest, Hungary

For a more substantial weekend getaway, we flew to Budapest, Hungary. Why? I thought it sounded cool a few months ago and had a cheap airfare. We woke up at 4am Saturday in Bonn and - after the usual airport wait - landed there after a short 1.5 hour flight. Hungary is a relatively new EU member and has yet to adopt the euro. The airport exchange rate sucked, but we got enough forint to pay for the mini-bus to our hotel. As advertised, this was a very nice place literally right on the west bank of the Danube River, the Buda side. Did you know that before a bridge linked them in 1873, Budapest was actually 2 cities, Buda and Pest? It sounded silly to me, but I'm not making that shit up. After dumping our bag and getting more cash (which, incidentally, is the coolest-looking currency I've ever encountered), we hiked up cobbled lanes into the walled medieval city around Buda Castle.

There's a little neighborhood up there, along with the castle (now housing the Hungarian National Art Gallery and a History museum), some hotels, restaurants, cafes, parks, statues, and churches. We checked out some of the views down to the Danube for a while and looked at some of the ancient homes and buildings being excavated. After walking around for a while, I desperately needed lunch. We stopped at a little outdoor restaurant: I had goulash soup, chicken and doughy stuff with a paprika sauce, and some kind of sour cherry/plum pastry. Jackie ate salad and fried goose liver pancakes. (food info for Liz.) It was good...heavy, but I was hungry. Next stop was the Mattias Church, with some pretty interesting medieval architecture and very ornate wooden ornamentation inside. My pictures turned out kinda crappy because of the low light. They had some interesting historical displays that included a skull and someone's (saint? martyr?) mummified finger. I love that kind of ridiculous stuff. We spent a good chunk of the afternoon in the art gallery inside the castle, and then stopped at a cafe for the traditional afternoon coffee and cake. I had a double espresso and cream cake (just what it sounds like...good God), and Jackie ate a giant chocolate cake and chocolate drink. Before we left, we had to check out the views from the Fisherman's Bastion, this beautiful stone structure hanging off the edge of the hill, that looks down on the Danube and the Pest side of the river. The red-domed building is the Hungarian Parliament, which was basically the close-up view we had across the river from our hotel room (awesome). After a bit of rest, we went to the bridge next to our hotel. There was some major festival thing on it over the weekend: filled with booths selling souvenirs, food, beer, and playing music, it was open only to (mobs of) pedestrians. We ate some skewered turkey with vegetables and potatoes along with Soproni, the local Heineken-like beer. I'm pretty sure we were asleep by 10pm (not too bad considering when we got up).

The next morning (after an incredible free breakfast from the hotel), we walked across the bridge to the Pest side and headed for the old Jewish ghetto. We quickly found the incredible Dohány Synagogue, the largest in the world outside of New York (ha! take that Jerusalem!). It had a pretty interesting - very moorish - external architecture, but the inside was spectacular. Sadly, I was too cheap to pay for the photo rights, so look at the pictures on the bottom of the wikipedia page. Extremely ornate inlaid wood designs, beautiful chandeliers, etc. It was a huge complex, and they had a very interesting museum about Jewish life, replete with medieval examples of dishes, candelabra, torah scrolls, etc. Most amazing was a Jewish tombstone (with menorah carving) from the 3rd century, when this was Roman territory. Out back was an interesting Holocaust memorial - more than half of Hungary's 700,000 Jews were sent to Nazi deathcamps or simply shot and dumped into the Danube (mostly by collaborating Hungarian fascists) - and a symbolic grave for Raoul Wallenberg. We then walked around in the old Jewish ghetto, seeing a few other large (less ornate) synagogues and stopping for lunch at a popular restaurant serving Ashkenazi-style traditional Jewish food. We had motza-ball/goose-neck and goulash soups for an appetizer. Then we moved onto stuffed cabbages and cholent/stuffed goose sausages with hard-boiled eggs, and finally some warm pastry desserts. Again, super-filling but awesome. To continue the God-fest, we headed to the enormous Svent Istvan Basilika. I've been in a lot of churches, but nothing even comes close to comparing with how beautiful and blinged-out this place was. The interior was filled with gold and marble, beautiful paintings, incredible domed ceilings, etc. Again, to satisfy my weird desire to see ancient bodyparts attributed to religious figures, we checked out St. Stephen's right hand (the "holy right") - sadly I couldn't get a good photo through the glass. We climbed to the top of the main tower and got some pretty amazing views of the city, before moving on. We walked all the way up the Danube, past the intricate Parliament building, and hung out for the rest of the afternoon on Margaret Island (that's right, a river island), very similar to Central Park in NYC. Around sunset, we headed back and had a light dinner and beer at a cafe in St. Stephen's square (where I got this neat picture of the basilica). Before bed, we stopped on the bridge festival again to listen to the live jazz/blues and eat this amazing grilled sweet bread thing (vanilla sugar is so good).

While it had been about 90 degrees the other days, our last day here was pretty gray, rainy, and about 68 degrees at most. This is much better than the 110+ degrees they had here for about 2 straight weeks before we came. We walked past the Opera house and all the way up the major Andrassy Ut boulevard (for no good reason) and had some Chinese food for lunch (too many rich Hungarian lunches). After a quick espresso stop, we had one thing left to do: thermal baths. Budapest is known for their natural hot mineral springs, and there are at least a dozen bath houses in the city. We went to the biggest, cheapest one that allows mixed-sex bathing. After some initial confusion (note to Hungarians: we stupid Americans do not understand the meaning behind curt, repeated, non-descript commands in broken English), we managed to change and get "towels" (curtains?). Despite the cold July weather (Europe is having a cold fucking summer), we went outside first. There were 3 pools: hot (38 C), cold (25 C), and warm (32 C) with fun currents swirling around obstacles. We tried the former and latter....soooooo relaxing. We spent about 3 hours running between thermal baths, mineral baths, and saunas. It felt really good, but there's only so much you can take. If for no other reason, I could come back and spend a week in Budapest just visiting various baths. We took the subway back downtown and the weather cleared a bit. After some more afternoon cake (screw coffee, right?) and light shopping in the pedestrian malls near Vaci Utca we had an amazing dinner (for cheap)! Fried goose liver and onions on toast for an appetizer. I had turkey breast stuffed with apples and soft cheese in a sour cherry sauce with potatoes and a great local red wine...all for like 10 euros. I was convinced it was a scam. I think we were both a little sad to leave...it really was an amazing place and we still had a lot left that we could do. Oh well...definitely a place worth a return trip - highly recommended for a different European perspective (without too much of the depressing stuff about eastern Europe). One last picture of the Parliament....

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Bonn, Germany ("home")

After getting back from Heidelberg (thankfully, we got a nice ride back from a colleague), we pretty much immediately proceeded to move into Jackie's new apartment in Bonn. Her old place was this little tiny (like less than 200 sq ft) efficiency right next to the Old City. So, nice interesting location, but really, really small. Her new place is in the Poppelsdorf neighborhood, about a kilometer away, and is at least twice as big. Everything's brand new, and its a very comfy place (with the exception of her nosy landlord). It turns out that Poppelsdorf is a really popular place to live...and incredibly convenient. There are 2 grocers within 20 m, 4 bakeries in a 1-block radius, a few falafel/kebab stands (and home-cooked Indian food!), a butcher and fishmonger (both of which I'm afraid to enter), and maybe a dozen restaurants that pour onto the streets at night. Oh yeah, and gelato. We took care of business and got all the new things she needed in one afternoon.

A little further down the street is the Poppelsdorfer Schloss (i.e., "castle" maybe = mansion?), this very pleasant-looking bright yellow building. Behind it is a botanical garden, but in front is a long (maybe 3/4 km) open lawn boulevard leading directly to the city center. It seems like a very popular place to hang out on the nicer days. Oddly enough, its now a Mineralogy Museum and houses the university's biology department. The rest of the week entailed 2 separate parties...one located a block from the Haribo factory (gummy bears) and the other for a colleague's birthday that provided a ridiculous amount of good food. I was particularly impressed with the beer quality at these parties. I'm not sure if there's a German "miller lite"...and if there is, I can't tell what it would be. More on this later. We also went to a nearby town - Bad Godesburg - to see the Simpson's movie (in English), which was much funnier than I expected. My favorite Homer quote: "That could be anyone's pig crap silo!"

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Heidelberg, Germany

After arriving early Monday morning in Cologne/Bonn (on what seemed like a surprisingly short flight), we basically jumped right on a 2.5-hour train ride to Heidelberg. The ride was very nice, following the Rhine River with castles and remarkably steep vineyards (mmm...Riesling) on the valley walls (how do they pick grapes on a 70 degree incline?). Heidelberg is your typical adorable German city, in a valley straddling the Neckar River in southeastern Germany (only ~20 miles from the French border). We checked into our hotel, called the Schnookeloch (no one knows what it means, but it was funny to Germans too), which was really an old student bar next to a sex shop (but still really nice), and I fell asleep for 4 hours while Jackie went to her conference.

This is where I must confess that Germany is very nice in the summer...everyone eats/drinks outside, in market squares, beer gardens, or little restaurants that have spilled onto the sidewalks. We joined them, for sausages and potatoes and beer in the open Markt in the heart of the old city. I was disturbed at how late the sun sets here...its not fully dark until like 10:30pm, which is a hell of a lot later than the 7:45pm in Hawaii (at the solstice!). After dark (and gelatos...mmm) we went onto this bridge to look at the castle lit up on the hillside.

Over the next few days (while Jackie was in her conference) I wandered around Heidelberg doing everything the Lonely Planet guide told me to. This included crossing over this dramatic bridge to the north side of the river and climbing up the hillside philosophenweg (Philosopher's Walk?), where Goethe and his compatriots used to hang out. The views (although somewhat obscured) of Heidelberg proper were pretty spectacular...all these little red-roofed buildings packed together. For some reason (hey, its pretty, but I don't get it), Heidelberg has some 3 million tourists each year - so everyone spoke at least a little English and it was easy to get whatever I wanted at restaurants, stores, etc. As far as I can tell, its main claim-to-fame is the oldest still-operating university in the world, founded in 1386.

The following afternoon gave conference participants some free time, so Jackie and I climbed up to the incredible ruined castle on the Heidelberg hillside (which used to house some of the Bavarian royal family). The grounds themselves were really pretty, with spectacular views, and the external crumbling castle walls were cool as well. Inside the castle, in some old cellar, there were these two giant wine barrels, one of which supposedly contained 220,000 L of wine (I find this hard to believe). There was also an interesting pharmacy museum here (I have no idea why). The internal castle facades were pretty spectacular. The empty window panes looked almost like plasma TVs showing the blue sky and clouds through them...it seemed fake. We took the liberty of wandering through the surrounding moats, and climbing up into a crumbling corner tower. In America this stuff would totally be roped off and guarded...not in Germany.

The next few days were spent investigating churches, climbing their bell towers, sightseeing, shopping (for beer mugs), eating meat (generally fried or in sausage form), and drinking beer. One comment on the latter: Heidelberg's Vetter beer house boasts the highest alcohol content beer in the world - 33%!!!! It is served in a 0.2 L glass and costs about 7 euros. I'm sure it tastes great, but that is equivalent to drinking about 5 shots of rum in a sitting. I avoided it and enjoyed their other beers (on 2 occasions). Jackie got this weisebierbowle thing there (it was only on the German-language menu, so you know its good), which was beer with a shot of champagne and a handful of beer-soaked strawberries on the bottom. It was way better than it sounds. I'll post the remaining Heidelberg pics online via google soon (and will edit this then).

Friday, June 29, 2007

a new home

Of course, it might be a bit presumptuous to start re-writing in here, thinking that people would actually still be reading it (or ever were in the first place). Either way, I'm sure someone will stumble on it again. A lot has happened in the past many months, most significantly: I'm done with graduate school and have moved away from Hawaii. I'm now technically homeless and unemployed until September. I left Hawaii on June 10 and then spent ~2 weeks at my parents' house in Chicago. After that I spent another ~2 weeks in Boston, my newly adopted city for the fall, hanging out with Chris and Kari as well as getting some work done. I also managed to find an apartment to move into when I return from Europe.

Its a pretty unique place as far as Boston goes. A roughly 800+ square foot 2-bedroom (1-bath) on the 3rd floor of a 3-floor building in a little residential area of Allston, MA. Some of the highlights: the last flight of stairs is internal to my apartment (i.e., private flight of stairs), one wall of the entire apartment is exposed brick, nice dark-wood floors, big eat-in kitchen, back deck off kitchen (with stairs down to parking lot - free parking! too bad I don't own a car), etc. Most important: killer location. I'm a 12-second walk from the southern bound of Harvard's campus (the business school/athletic fields) and the major north-south bus line in this area, and a ~5-10 minute walk from the very pretty Charles River (not "Hawaii pretty", but what more could I expect!?). Its a ~12 minute walk to Harvard Square (and the major subway system), and another 10 minutes from there to my office at the CfA. In the other direction, its a < 15 minute walk to Wai Kru, the gym I'm planning to join. Its also a little more than a half-hour walk (~10 minutes on a bike, or a short bus ride/walk) to Chris & Kari's place in Brookline. So, I'm very, very pleased, especially with the price ($1300/month). Here are some pictures from the craigslist ad where I originally scouted it:

Anyway, before I get ahead of myself and start thinking about moving there...I have to move to Europe for 2 months first. So, keep checking for travel updates.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

windward kayaking

Yesterday, Dave and I went on a marathon ocean kayaking session on the windward side of Oahu. We got up early (for me) and headed to Kailua Beach on what has to have been the nicest day so far in 2007. We paddled out of Kailua Bay, down past Lanikai Beach, and all the way into Waimanalo Bay. Above the bay was some crazy single-engine WWII-era prop plane doing amazing acrobatic techniques...I was captivated for a good 15 minutes wondering if I was going to witness some horrible accident. We paddled out and around the Mokuleia Islands (seen below), which was pretty exciting because the ocean was heaving out there (kayaking got a bit harder), and it was a pretty unique viewpoint. All in all, the trip was about 2.5 hours...and now I'm sore in random places (traps, wrists, hamstrings, huh?). By the way, these pictures are not doctored - its just that beautiful. [I did use a polarizer.]

Friday, December 15, 2006

choi 2: the volcano-ing

Choi was coming back to Hawaii to visit her parents, so we arranged to meet for an adventure on the Big Island. She gets enough tropical/beach time otherwise, so it was a good opportunity to play around on the volcanos and such. One crazy thing I realized during this trip was that Choi and I have known each other for almost 10 years now! 10 years! I'm so old.

Anyway, we started off (after breakfast at Ken's) by driving up to the summit of Mauna Kea for an astronomy tour. Even though it had to be 45 mph sustained winds and we both were well-prepared for the cold in our hoodies, we decided it would be wise to hike out to the "true" summit to check out the views to the northeast. Its amazing how brutal a 30-minute hike can be at 14,000 feet. We checked out all the telescopes and I finally explained what the hell I've been doing here for nearly 6 years (outside of surfing the web in my office - which is probably 60% of my time).

After getting back to Hilo (Choi was not a fan of the winding, downhill Saddle Road - I don't blame her) we had a delicious dinner at Hilo Bay Cafe and then drove our rental to Volcanoes National Park on the south side of the island. We were staying in this little tiny log cabin in the woods (because it was cheap), which turned out to be pretty silly. As it was dark and there was not much to do, Choi promptly fell asleep around 8:30pm. The cabin was comfortable enough, although it got cold during the night (40s), and we never saw it during the day. We left and headed to the Kilauea Caldera before dawn. We drove down to the ocean where the recent lava flows end, but it was rainy and the air quality was poor due to the prevailing winds carrying sulfur fumes and small glass particles from the flows and vents to the east. We hiked out in the lava fields for quite a while without any other tourists around, which was pretty unique in my experience.

The weather cleared up a bit and we hiked out to some ancient Hawaiian petroglyphs. There were lots of rock carvings of little men and circles, the latter of which were used to deposit the umbilical cords of newborns. We took our time driving back up the cliffs were lava flows had spilled over in the past 50 years or so, and checked out the Thurston lava tube back in the rainforest at 4000 feet. For a late lunch we headed back to Hilo and then went up the coast a bit to check out the beautiful Akaka Falls (1000 foot? waterfall). After a hike down to the ocean near the botanical gardens, it was time to head back to the airport. It was a quick trip, but you can pack a hell of a lot in these kinds of 36-hour adventures in Hawaii.

Friday, December 08, 2006

germany: epcot center got it right

After the conference in Madrid, I flew up to Germany to visit Jackie at her new job in Bonn. Of course, I've been so lazy since then and am writing this way later that I forget most of what happened in detail...but we'll see what we can do.
Bonn is a little city on the Rhine in western Germany (near Belgium and Luxembourg) that has the character of a children's fairy tale village/Epcot Center attraction with some additional junk, like modern fashionista stores, sausage carts (although those were in my childhood fantasy villages), weird salons inside train stations, homeless people that always have dogs, and Turks. It was the birthplace of Beethoven, so we saw his house and museum, which included some pretty cool stuff like notebooks with scratched out music, and those megaphones for his ears when he was going deaf.

We spent most of the visit in Bonn, where I again expressed my remarkable skill for being relaxed and lazy. The food was very tasty (and sausage-y), and the local Kolsch style of beer was excellent - very light, almost fruity finish. You could be six 0.5L bottles in the grocery story for 2 euros ($3; the recycling deposit was more expensive than the beer): now that's my kind of country. Jackie's posted about this before, but I was amazed that you could just get on buses and trains and no one would question whether you had a ticket...it would have been easy to just walk on and never pay for anything. I had never heard or seen enough German to appreciate the similarities with English (they both come from the same mother tongue)...its almost as if Germans are speaking English with too much gum in their mouth.

Anyway, on Thanksgiving we rode the (wrong) train up to Cologne (or Koln) for the day. Cologne was the major northern city of the Roman Empire, making this area of Germany the only remaining predominantly Catholic region. Because of that, there's an absolutely amazing cathedral there that took some 600 years to build, and is one of the few structures that was not destroyed in the Allies' bombings in WWII. The cathedral is so big it was not really possible to get it in one shot, and the weather wasn't the greatest. Inside the cathedral they have some important Christian relics in these gold sarcophaguses: the remains of the Three Wise Men. Exactly...I bet you didn't know they were in Germany! While there we also visited the Chocolate Museum (wonderful) and hung out in a Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas Market) and ate delicious stuff like potato pancakes and listened to a quartet of those Ricola horns.

Anyway, this is a pretty scatter-brained picture of a nice vacation in Bonn. Afterwards I flew back to Madrid for a day in the museums and then on to Chicago, and finally back to Honolulu. I'm sure I'll be able to paint a better picture when I go back over the summer for better adventures (i.e., beer gardens).

Sunday, December 03, 2006

i was in spain and it wasn't very exciting...

A few weeks ago I flew from Honolulu to Madrid (with some stops) for a conference. To summarize, the conference and Madrid were both kinda lame. But anyway, I figured I should post something about it. The trip began well, thanks to my following Jonathan's expert advice on how to properly drug yourself for long flights. I flew Iberia Airlines from Chicago (which incidentally I will never do again), and popped the suggested 1 Tylenol PM with some red wine right after dinner. I was figuring it would take ~30 minutes to kick in, but I swear to you that one pill is equivalent to getting shot in the neck with a tranquilizer dart that would put down an elephant. Literally within 3 minutes I passed out in a full upright position for 6+ hours! My back/neck never hurt so much in my life.

Anyway, I spent most of the week doing conference-y things. That basically means drinking about 10 coffees a day, listening to dull lectures by nervous weird people (myself included), eating bland uninspired food and 3 glasses of red wine for 2 hour lunch breaks, and wandering around aimlessly looking for a place to eat dinner that can seat the 11 tag-a-long losers that are following me and the cool people around. But, I did have some time to do all the tourist things as well. In fact, I'm convinced that if you're well-organized you can see everything there is to see in Madrid in 1 day.

Madrid has really nice art museums, particularly the Prado (older stuff) and the Museo de Reina Sofia (modern, 20th century). I have to admit I enjoyed the latter much more because it was filled with some pretty incredible Picasso and Dali paintings. Salvador Dali was a fucking genius...his paintings are the artistic equivalent of the Twin Peaks TV series (google him if you've never heard of him: try and find a photo of him - he had this crazy moustache that will blow your mind). The top floor in that museum was modern "art"...there was some Spanish guy who was featured that had one of those hilarious paintings that was a black streak on white with a single blue dot and a single red dot. You know, something that literally could have been accomplished by a retarded ostrich but some douchebag considers "high art".

There's also a very elegant looking royal palace and a beautiful cathedral right next to it, as well as a group of nice parks and fountains. But, seriously, how long can you spend looking at concrete fountains? Anyway, in the end I think Madrid was not a bad week...I did have a lot of fun socially at a bunch of the conference-related stuff and several good nights on the town. My main complaints were that nothing really struck me as "incredible", and particularly the food was a big disappointment. The paella was bland, oily, and filled with little chicken bones (mmm...choking hazards), broken mussel shells, and shrimp antennae. The bread was always very dry. There was an excessive (holy crap excessive) amount of ham, which was exciting for the first 24 hours but then got kinda ridiculous. Most places (including bars) had an entire cured pig leg/ass on the counter (hoof included) to saw off fatty, salty chunks for your supposed enjoyment. Madrid would not be a fun place to be a vegetarian (or try to eat Kosher). The best food part was the abundant, cheap, spicy/smoky rioja wines, which were (literally) cheaper by the bottle than the water.

In the end, Madrid seemed like a slightly more ornate US city with extra Spanish-speakers, more ham, and less water. I'll give the rest of Spain another chance, though. Madrid is a relatively young European city, and lacks the interesting history that the rest of Spain is ripe with. So I think next time I'll head to Barcelona and some other coastal cities to see the more Meditteranean style.