Bay of the Descending Dragon

The entire time I had this playing in my head “Ha Long, Ha Long must we sing this song”. You know – the famous U2 song …

We spent three days in Hanoi, three days so tightly packed and filled with new sights, smells and tastes that they felt more like three weeks; we were lucky enough to spend them in the company of two very experienced backpacker friends, the Murftastic Maria and Brian (http://murphtasticvoyage.wordpress.com/) who had been traveling for almost a year and covering three (or four?) continents. Our Hanoi experience culminated and ended with a lovely dinner at Ly Club, an upscale restaurant in a restored French colonial house, where everything was pitch-perfect: the food, the atmosphere and, last but not least, the perfectly preserved  century-old Citroen in the courtyard.

Of course we took advantage to pose a la roaring '20s, complete with khakis and Birkenstocks

Of course we took advantage to pose a la roaring ’20s, complete with khakis and Birkenstocks

Early next morning we said our goodbyes to the Murftastics and headed out to Ha Long Bay: a three hour bus ride followed by a fifteen minute trip in a dingy and finally boarding the ship that was our home for the nightHa Long Bay doesn’t require much explanation or description: its eerie karst landscape  of over 1500 limestone pillars, some large enough to be home to thousands, but most uninhabited, stretches for almost 2000 km.

The bay seen from Ti Top island; one of the few with a  sliver of beach

The bay seen from Ti Top island; one of the few with a sliver of beach

Arches, caves, hidden coves, spectacular inverted pyramids of stone were all created by sea invasion, regression and re-invasion over millennia; but by far the more interesting version of the story comes not from geologists or the UNESCO  but from the Vietnamese people themselves. According to the legend, in Vietnam’s earliest days as a country, fierce invaders descended from the North through the sea. Ever watchful, the Jade Emperor sent Mother Dragon and her children in the ancient Vietnamese’s defense and Mother Dragon and her army incinerated the invaders on the spot with “divine fire and giant emeralds”. The emeralds from the dragon’s mouth were scattered around the battlefield on the sea and formed an invincible defensive wall, which, after thousands of years, turned into island and islets of different sizes and shapes. (Apparently even the mighty dragons are not immune to water’s erosive abilities...)

Possibly our favorite rock in the bay : we baptised this one Roca Bruja in honor of another rock (surfers will know why) and also because it seems to defy the laws of physics

Possibly our favorite rock in the bay : we baptised this one Roca Bruja in honor of another rock (surfers will know why) and also because it seems to defy the laws of physics

Ha Long is also home to several tens of floating villages, where an entire family, sometimes three generations live all in a boat together and make a living out of fishing; according to our guide, the Vietnamese government is planning to move all of them by the end of 2014, a UNESCO requirement which I’m sure won’t sit well with many of these free-spirited fishermen and women.

The floating villages of Ha Long are picturesque enough but you can also trace the human debris right back to them; so in the name of nature preservation they will all be gone in a few years

The floating villages of Ha Long are picturesque enough but you can also trace the human debris right back to them; so in the name of nature preservation they will all be gone in a few years

Often 3 generations in a single boat, the floating villagers seem to enjoy their lives amongst the karst islands notwithstanding the dangers of the sea and lack of access to schools for their children

Often 3 generations in a single boat, the floating villagers seem to enjoy their lives amongst the karst islands notwithstanding the dangers of the sea and lack of access to schools for their children

The women - and this was a common theme in Vietnam - often do the fishing, rowing, selling, haggling and money management, on top of their day jobs of cooking and child-rearing

The women – and this was a common theme in Vietnam – often do the fishing, rowing, selling, haggling and money management, on top of their day jobs of cooking and child-rearing

We spent three days and two nights sailing through the bay, kayaking to hidden beaches and coves, hiking up some of the larger karst islands and spotting all kinds of wildlife and enjoying some of the most peaceful and beautiful moments of our lives. It didn’t hurt that the sun came out so we braved the 70s in short sleeves even though the locals were bundled up in their warmest parkas.

A typically modest meal on the boat - just a few tens of dishes and every single one was polished clean by the end

A typically modest meal on the boat – just a few tens of dishes and every single one was polished clean by the end

This is what they should put in the dictionary next to "hole-in-the-wall" LITERALLY this bar ROCKS

This is what they should put in the dictionary next to “hole-in-the-wall” LITERALLY this bar ROCKS

The cruise ended with a hike up to Surprise cave, a fairly large cavern way above sea level, chock-full of enormous stalactites and stalagmites and the requisite legends to accompany them. I’ve never been to Disneyland but I was told that was a plus in this instance as my slate was clean of man-made wonders – so I liked the cave quite a bit.

Speaking of very large caves: a few years ago the largest cave in the world was discovered - guess where? In central Vietnam; As much as we would have loved to see it, that particular cave is open only to visitors who are willing to shell out $3000 - on our shoe-string budget, Surprise cave it was!

Speaking of very large caves: a few years ago the largest cave in the world was discovered – guess where? In central Vietnam; As much as we would have loved to see it, that particular cave is open only to visitors who are willing to shell out $3000 – on our shoe-string budget, Surprise cave it was!

We loved Ha Long so much that we decided to spend another few days on Cat Ba island – the largest in the bay – hiking the national park, scooting up and down the island like the locals did, enjoying killer coffee and pancakes and taking in some of the best sunsets in Vietnam.

To enjoy this beautiful sunset Ed had a beer and I had a fresh passionfruit and ants juice; I hadn’t signed up for the latter but they were pleasantly tangy – Ha!

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Sardines drying on the side of the road and getting seasoned with dust and motorcycle exhaust Mmmmmm

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The karsts – they are everywhere

It was sad to say goodbye to the bay (it seems we are always saying goodbye to beautiful bays…) but we had to do it – new adventures awaited.

So long Ha Long!

So long Ha Long!

Hanoi: First Impressions of the City Between Two Rivers

Hanoi happened upon us like a maelstrom in a a field of unsuspecting daisies.

Birdcages (for good luck) everywhere in Hanoi; early in the morning they’re still covered by little blankets

 We landed very early in the morning and spent a ridiculous amount of time in the customs, eventually leaving the airport in a taxi drained, spent and irritable. As we drove towards the city, a thick mist covered the fields and we were introduced for the first time to the ubiquitous Vietnamese motos/scooters and their fully covered riders: helmets atop face masks seemingly made of bedsheets or tableclothes extended like bibs over their throats, making them look like ragtag bandits from an Asian Mad Max remake. In hindsight, it all makes perfect sense: the combination of dust and smog is more than anyone lung or face can take on a daily basis

 My naive notions of Hanoi, developed through watching Indochine and Scent of Green Papaya too many times, were quickly shattered: far from a romantic, exotic city of quiet inner gardens and graceful architecture, Hanoi comes at you with the full force of a bustling marketplace where everything is for sale and everyone is selling something – a service, a meal, a scarf, a paper clip. This first overwhelming impression of Hanoi may have something to do with the fact that we were staying in the Old Quarter, a neighborhood incredibly tightly packed with backpacker hostels and hotels, street merchants, food vendors, shops and, of course, motorcycles.

The old and the new blend almost seamlessly in this crazy city

The old and the new blend almost seamlessly in this crazy city

Three things shocked me the most about the city, although, in hindsight, this may also be a result of my inexperience with Asian cities in general:

  1.  The traffic – It’s impossible to describe exactly what the traffic on the streets of Hanoi looks like, but imagine an anaconda of motorycles (up to four riders on each) bikes, cycles and the occasional car, so close together that drivers could high-five each other on both sides, at all times of the day except peak hours, when they would be too tightly packed to extend their elbows. Like bikes in Amsterdam, motorcycles litter ever empty square inch of sidewalk, every causeway, every shopfront, often forcing us, mere pedestrians, to use the streets and walk alongside the traffic. I won’t even begin to explain the noise – take New York’s Time Square and add a million or so blaring motorcycle horns and you’ll get the picture…

    Impromptu barber shops pop up on every street corner; much like impromptu restaurants and cafes

    Impromptu barber shops pop up on every street corner; much like impromptu restaurants and cafes

  2. The industriousness – Wherever a square inch of sidewalk was miraculously free of merchandise or parked scooters, an old lady will take out a diminutive charcoal stove and she will cook up a storm: grilled meats, grilled corn, cold noodles and many other unidentifiable fare – out in the open, footsteps away from the traffic. On kindergarten-sized plastic chairs, workers and backpackers alike enjoy the bliss of pho ga and other noodle dishes, rightfully oblivious to the noises and smells that the city emanates. If not cooking or serving (often both at the same time, under the gaze of their husbands who lounge, throwing back strong vietnamese coffee and taking tokes of tobacco from giant bamboo bongs) women roam the streets wearing traditional conical hats and carrying poles with baskets heavy with fruit, vegetables or fried balls of sweet dough. And, perhaps most shockingly, at the end of the day, which in Hanoi comes early as everyone is hard-core morning people, the wares, the garbage, the screaming babies and errant dogs, the stalls, the charcoal, the styrofoam cups – they all vanish. All of a sudden, you come out of a restaurant after dinner and find yourself in another city, swept clean of human debris where all the chaos and madness seem like a pipe dream – until around 5:00 AM next morning.

    Our friends Brian and Maria (of Smurftastic Voyage fame) demonstrating how the kindergarten restaurant works in practice

    Our friends Brian and Maria (of Smurftastic Voyage fame) demonstrating how the kindergarten restaurant works in practice

  3. The crowds – Vietnam, unlike neighboring Cambodia who just recently managed to surpass its pre-Pol Pot population numbers, has had a policy of encouraging family growth and succeeded tremendously, at its own peril. Over 90 million people are squeezed together in this sliver of a country and 8 million of them in Hanoi, slightly more than a hamlet by Asian standards but maddeningly tight by our spoiled low-density Bay Area ones. Privacy is a meaningless word, as people live, cook, study, sell food and raise their children on the tight streets of the Old Quarters.

    Sleep happens where it happens

    Sleep happens where it happens

According to a yet unverified source the education system is so overwhelmed that a system of shifts had to be put in place to deal with the great numbers of young pupils. At peak hour when the schools let out rivers of children run into traffic deftly identifying and climbing on a parent’s motorbike. Said parent will most often do grocery shopping from the bike barely stopping.

We experienced this first hand – bumbling giants towering over a sea of small heads bobbing and weaving between our legs towards their parents, patiently waiting on motorbikes. It was a sight to behold…

Someday we’ll see the Noortenlicht in Amsterdam

As though snatching an entire country from the jaws of water wasn’t enough, the Dutch have also perfected the art of talking on their mobile with two children and six grocery bags hoisted on a bike, while navigating the tourist-packed streets of Amsterdam. We arrived in Amsterdam on November 22nd, on a speedy train from Paris, just in time to catch increasingly fevered holiday preparations and a steady influx of tourists, attracted by the city’s wintery charms

Canals and bikes; bikes and canals - Amsterdam is both old Europe and very modern Europe at the same time

Canals and bikes; bikes and canals – Amsterdam is both old Europe and very modern Europe at the same time

No other city in Europe feels as civilized and as crazy, at the same time. Utterly bipolar, dear old Amsterdam. On one end of the spectrum you have the delightful cafes that offer fluffy pastries and strong coffee, filled with polite, long-limbed blond people; the cobblestone streets, winding along canals and criss-crossing the city; the numerous design shops; the restaurants offering scrumptious fare, from the typical Dutch to Brazilian and Thai; the clean, fast, silent trams; paper tulips everywhere, and typical blue-on-white porcelain piled up in shop windows, conveying a sense of domesticity and building up expectations for great tea. (The tea is mediocre)

the waffles do live up to the expectations

the waffles do live up to the expectations

On the other hand: the city looks as though a bike taiphoon swept through it. Bikes are piled up everywhere, on three levels of storage near the train station, chained to bridges, street lights, leaning on walls, some rusting away, seemingly forgotten by owners.

Of the 1 million bikes in Amsterdam, about 25,000 end up un canals each year and 100,000 are stolen!

Of the 1 million bikes in Amsterdam, about 25,000 end up un canals each year and 100,000 are stolen!

Also, the Red Light District, which creeps up on you, especially if, like me, you fail to notice that shops and restaurants start to bear increasingly inappropriate names as you approach it: “the Kamasutra” Indian restaurant, the “Amore” pizzeria, and, eventually, the  “Quartier Putaine” brasserie. Of course, the so-called “coffeeshops”, where no coffee is consumed, and whose patrons amble out in slow-motion looking mightily red-eyed. A city ordinance makes it illegal to smoke tobacco in Amsterdam’s coffeshops…

Unfortunately you're not allowed to take photos of the juiciest bits in the Red Light District; but then again WordPress would probably give us an X-rating if we posted those, so here's a nice view of a canal

Unfortunately you’re not allowed to take photos of the juiciest bits in the Red Light District; but then again WordPress would probably give us an X-rating if we posted those, so here’s a nice view of a canal

Since we visited at the end of November, we also had a chance to inspect some Dutch holiday traditions: caramel waffles, mulled wine, Christmas markets and a whiff of racial controversy. Let me explain: In Holland, Saint Nicholas (Sinterklaas, aka Santa’s Dutch grandfather) is accompanied on his gift-giving voyage by Zwarte Piet, a blackface sort-of-elf dressed in colorful Renaissance attire, or rather by a few Zwarte Piets, some six to eight of them, to David Sedaris’ comical puzzlement.

Dutch Santa and his helpers

Dutch Santa and his helpers

I highly recommend reading his entire essay, but here’s a good paragraph to sum it up: “The six to eight black men were characterized as personal slaves until the mid 1950s, when the political climate changed and it was decided that instead of being slaves they were just good friends.” Or as a Slate article from 2011 put it: ‘In In Holland, Santa Doesn’t Have Elves. He Has Slaves.”   Apparently David Sedaris was not the only one who found it disconcerting: the UN is now taking an active interest in sorting out this particular Christmas story.As for us, after thoroughly exploring the winding streets and canals of the city we took a friend’s advice and checked out NDSM pier – a free ferry ride away and a testimony of Dutch ingenuity. NDSM-werf looks a little like a Blade Runner set and is a city-sponsored art community called Kinetisch Noord that has taken over a derelict shipyard. MTV thought the area was so cutting-edge that it revamped one of the old industrial buildings and made it its European headquarters.

NDSM is full of really cool urban/industrial art from reclaimed materials

NDSM is full of really cool urban/industrial art from reclaimed materials

As it happens NDSM is home to now one of our favorite cafes in the world: Noortenlicht Cafe, a Dutch Frankenstein of cafes cobbled together from scrapyard materials, with huggli from the folk and the recycled, welded exhaust looking wood-burning stove as well as a claim to fame as an ideal venue to observe, in winter, the very lights that gave it its name. One day we’ll come back and watch the celestial spectacle from a beat-up couch with a ginger tea steaming in a mug from this place. One day …IMG_20131124_133658P1060263

After days of walking the cold cobblestones and stuffing our faces with delicious Dutch baked goods (spiced cookies, apple strudels, waffles, etc), a requisite visit to the Tulip museum and the Rembrandt reproduction gallery, where all of Rembrandt’s paintings are organized chronologically making for a fascinating narrative of his evolution as an artist, we took our leave of Old Amsterdam with all its goods and bads and headed back to France where we rested for a day before boarding the plane for our first Asian destination: Hanoi, Vietnam.

“They Came to Boston”

And off we are again, headed North to Boston, where New England fall awaits us in all its changing splendor. Boston is home to a few more of our dearest friends, my college roommate Kseniya and Nigel, Ed’s old college roommate. Boston was a bit nippier than New York, but we still lucked out with the weather overall, considering how fickle fall can be in late October.

In Boston, all sorts of deep-seated needs were satisfied: the need for hearty pot roast with potatoes, cream of squash soup and even rillettes Bulgarian-style (who knew we were craving that!), thanks Ksew and Jay for your multinational delicacies. Also satisfied: my long-harbored need for a lobster roll, a remnant of my Cape Cod days, but most importantly – and before you start taking me for a total food hedonist – the need to catch up on all things near and far, to vent, to discuss, to over-analyze, to poke fun at each other and to re-hash old memories.

Caption is needless here. My two darlings.

Caption is needless here. My two darlings.

In between food and talk, we did a few other fun things. Since Ed and I separated to hang out with our ‘besties’, Ksew and Jay took me out to Plum Island beach, just North of Cape Ann, a remote part of Massachusetts I hadn’t explored before, with a few stops in between, including a scenic cemetery covered in golden foliage, and lunch at a local seafood joint (I really do love steamed clams dripping with hot butter).

A 'nature morte' in the purest sense

A ‘nature morte’ in the purest sense

The beach itself was beautiful, almost entirely desolate on a late Sunday afternoon, with a very small peak that, in its larger incarnations, is home to PIST (Plum Island Surf Team), which sounds funnier when you say it than when you write it.

Jay and Ksew show me their favorite summertime hangout

Jay and Ksew show me their favorite summertime hangout

On the way back we stopped at the most incredible farm, Tendercrop Farm near Newbury, where an entire second floor was covered in bunches of dried herbs and flowers, neatly tied and hung from a ceiling, like  something you might see in professor Pomona Sprout’s greenhouse over at Hogwarts’.

Tendercrop Farm, a small part of the witches' lair that was the upstairs floor

Tendercrop Farm, a small part of the witches’ lair that was the upstairs floor

(This is when you turn to your non-Harry Potter-head friends and shake your head in disappointment at their not getting it).

Reunited with Ed, we spent some time exploring Boston by bike thanks to their awesome Bike Hub system, which gave me a run for my money – literally – as we raced from one hub to another trying to stick to the 30 minute time limit before incurring extra charges. Eventually, all roads lead to the Boston Commons, and so did we, and afterwards we checked out the Public Library, the first large free municipal library in the United States.

Inner courtyard of Boston's Public Library

Inner courtyard of Boston’s Public Library

After the requisite evening bowl of clam chowder in an Irish pub off of Newbury street, we headed to another friend’s home – Daniel Schultz, another one of Ed’s UCSD friends, and from there we ended the night eating oysters near Fenway stadium while the Red Sox were kicking someone’s behinds in an away-from-home game in the World Series final. Overall, very much a Bostonite evening, including the chill that suddenly set in, reminding us that New England’s not for sissies…

Glorious view of Boston from Ksew's desk at work. Yes, people, that's what she gets to look at when she's in the office...

Glorious view of Boston from Ksew’s desk at work. Yes, people, that’s what she gets to look at when she’s in the office…

The next day: Ksew had an awesome hike in store for us in the nearby hills, followed by a Boston friends reunion over at Nigels’, where his amazing girlfriend Emily made us the most scrumptious homemade pizzas, Vermont-style.

Time flew by and, before we knew it, we were again on the bus, this time headed south, for the first time since our trip started: Connecticut beckoned us through the voices of Josh and Erika, two friends who are now officially adults, with a beautiful house in a picturesque area of the state.

We spent about a day with them, recovering from travels, and afterwards hitched a ride to New York, where we boarded a plane towards Budapest, the first stop on the European leg of our trip.

A Word on Hygge, from New York

Hygge is a funny little Danish word that elegantly stands in for a potpourri of feelings: coziness, warmth, comfort, love, security, being surrounded by friends and loved ones, looking out at snow and sleet from inside a warm, fire-lit room, sipping a hot drink, feeling utterly safe and happy. Danes know a thing or two about hygge apparently, given that they won the metaphoric cake several times as the world’s happiest people, so we adopted ‘hygge’ as a new word in our vocabulary, to fill in a space that the pragmatic English language has left unexplored. (There’s a few other notions that English doesn’t begin to define, like the Portuguese ‘saudade’ and Romanian ‘dor,’ both meaning to miss someone, a mixture of nostalgia, hurt, love and good memories, or the Arabic “sukuun” literally ‘the presence of absence,’ so cleverly capturing the feeling engendered by a certain kind of emptiness.) But ‘hygge’ really stands out for its unequivocally positive connotations and we adopted it wholeheartedly. Until we spoke to the experts, that is.

I should say that by this point we arrived in New York, our third East Coast destination, and, not surprisingly, one full of adventures in spite of the fact that it was somewhat shorter. We stayed with our good friends Vio and Didi (which autocorrect insists are actually called Bio and Did with an infuriating self-assuredness) and were lucky enough to have our other friend Ion as guide and maitre d’ during the days.

Our wonderful hosts, hard at cooking a delicious vegetarian dinner on our first night in New York.

Our wonderful hosts, hard at cooking a delicious vegetarian dinner on our first night in New York.

Ion (pronounced Yon) also happens to be the expert whom we consulted with regards to ‘hygge’ and Danish culture, in general, as someone who lived a good few years there and experienced first-hand the much-vaunted Danish happiness, hygge and eponymous cheese-filled pastries.

Ion, our New York guide and Danish happiness expert :-)

Ion, our New York guide and Danish happiness expert 🙂

The verdict? The Danes are no more no less happy than anyone else. Objectively, they seem to enjoy excellent healthcare, a good social net, rake in sizable incomes and have plenty of time for vacations and family. On the flip side, their weather is terrible and their politics veer a bit extreme right, especially on the topic of immigration.

But happiness has nothing to do with objective measurements. Even those poor 1% of the US, who by all standards should be the happiest? Not always happy, believe it or not, because there’s always someone richer, younger, prettier or more successful than them. It’s all about perspective and who you compare yourself with – those above or those below you in wealth, health, looks, etc.

As for us two bums? Between eating gourmet vegetarian dinners hand-cooked for us by two Wall-Street hot-shots, taking in  the Maigritte exhibit at MoMa, walking through Central Park at its most splendid time of the year, and most importantly, hanging out with good friends in cozy places, laughing, drinking, and making plans, we certainly experienced hygge the New York-version, and wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Brunch, watered abundantly with mimosas

Brunch, watered abundantly with mimosas

Dinner and drinks

Dinner and drinks at Reunion

At the Moma. We weren't allowed to take photos at the Maigritte exhibit :-(; but everything else was game...

At the Moma. We weren’t allowed to take photos at the Maigritte exhibit :-(; but everything else was game…

Thank you Bio, Did, Eye-On and Nod Yeah! DAMN YOU AUTOCORRECT!
A la prochaine, chers amis.

The Journey begins: Atlanta and D.C.

And so it begins: after packing up all of our belongings in boxes and crates, subletting the good old Lilly Pad, and stuffing the car with miscellanea, we drove down to Southern California to say our goodbyes to the family and get abused by our cat one last time- oh, how we missed you dear Minoush.

After a refreshing and energizing few days in the OC, Ed and I finally boarded an airplane to the first leg of our grand journey: The East Coast Tour. 

The trip starts on a nice fall day which feels more like an early summer day in sunny Atlanta, greeted by the smile of the wonderful Kelly Mac.  Our gracious host has in the past 3 years become quite the tour guide to the hip and cool of Atlanta.  As usual Kelly has an amazing knack to find the best music venues, coffee shops and this time as a special treat, an sumptuous restaurant.  To start, Tuesday night went off!  In a T-shirt and sandals we cruised, southern-style to a local music venue which had glorious live music and good southern food.  I’d describe it more in detail, but unfortunately I’m not the biggest fan of southern food, sorry foodies.  The open mic was generously shared to anyone who has musical talent, and let me tell ya’all, the talent in the building was flowing out the windows!

After a nice stroll to visit a little history we made a pit stop to the local refueling station.  Literally a former gas station for us professional culture seekers to satiate our late night astro-octanophilia.  My drink was a whiskey glass full of gin, bitters, maybe some absinth the right herbs and a massive cube of ice that even it was afraid to get dive into this large amount of high caliber alcohol.  I don’t know how, but I finished it before closing time, and the ice cube was left gleefully high and dry.  Good night folks.

The next day we saw a converted rail line into an artistic walk.  See photos.  I really appreciated this touch as there were a lot of people seriously enjoying themselves while jogging, rollerblatding, commuting, and walking their babies, dogs, babies’ dogs and even the resident cat was out for a walk.  See photos, ’nuff said.


The coffee shop actually reminded me of Coffee Bar, the original, in the Mission of San Francisco.  The best part of the coffee shop is the atmosphere and the folks inside, how they interact, are busy, and enjoying the place.  And the quality of the Coffee of course.  All should be written home about, but I’m not going to try to capture the quality of such. (so just go visit Kelly Mac, if you’re lucky enough to be invited 😉

Oh-la-la: Gentrification in the Capital of the Nation

A short preface, for clarification: both of us lived in Washington DC for a length of time (Ed for about 1.5 years, I for about 4); in fact, that’s where Cupid impaled us ruthlessly on a balmy Bastille Day. Thankfully we’re skewered onto each other, so we’ll forgive him the unnecessary violence. We still have lots of very dear friends that still live there, including two of my bridesmaids, Bulgarian firecracker Monika and Uruguayan goddess Ana.

We left on a lovely warm morning for D.C., where Bogdan, one of my old roommates (there were many of us!) picked us up from the airport in his snazzy new ride and deposed us to his new abode in Virginia, which he shares with Monika and another AUBG alumn and friend. The weather was definitely on our side again, with beautiful, mostly sunny and crisp days, which we packed real’ tight with people- and sight-seeing, including:

Champagne and hors d’oeuvres at Ana’s lovely apartment

P1050867Pit-stop at DC’s “sexiest” terrace – the W hotelP1050875Dinner where it all started: The Bistrot Du Coin P1050897Followed by drinks at Russia House, another DC institution with which we have some history. And yes, that’s a sickle and hammer on the wall there… Also, they served Hangar One vodka, the very distillery we toured the weekend before leaving San Francisco.P1050898Tour of NPR, complete with watching the Making of All Things Considered, directed by the one and only Monika Evstatieva (See INSTAGRAM Photos)

Toro Y Moi Concert at the 9:30 clubP1050912Tour of incredibly lovely looking, revamped Navy Yard and meeting with Tom and his adorable familyP1050930And finally, dinner at Roxana’s fancy new abode that looked like it fell out of the Martha Stewart Living magazine.

Overall, the biggest shock we experienced in DC was caused by the incredible degree of gentrification we saw everywhere – from 14th Street, which used to have a whopping two decent restaurants before we left, to Navy Yard, where people used to sleep in bathtubs for fear of stray bullets, as recent as five years ago.They both now look like posh sections of San Francisco.

Not sure if someone stumbled onto the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow or what, or they finally elected a mayor without a crack habit, but the city is certainly booming.

Thank you D.C. friends – it was lovely to see you all! Next Destination: NEW YORK CITY!

E&C, a joint post

Seven Things I Love About San Francisco (plus/minus one hundred)

I left my heart in San Francisco, but I gave it a pair of earmuffs, so it should be good for the summer. Here are some things I will miss while we’re away:

1. THE PEOPLE. You know who you are, you hipsters, you tricksters, you prophets in the sky. Wonderful people who craft, cook, surf, bike, run, batik, knit, brunch, smoke salmon, play music, listen to music, get drunk on microbrews, sip wine with true connoisseurship, go to all the music festivals in the state, nordic ski, play board games, drink chai, wear hipster glasses, roast your own coffee, braid your own bracelets, cure your own ham, grow your own herbs, quit your jobs to go traveling, sleep under the sky and yell “ka-kaaw” at the top of your lungs. I LOVE YOU ALL!!!!

2. THE VIEWS: The view from our apartment in Laurel Heights. The view at Inspiration Point and from Twin Peaks. The Lyon street stairs, with their beautiful view over the Bay, which is heard-earned. The peek of Pacifica you get from the top of the hill above Lindamar beach. The view OF and FROM Angel Island. And probably my favorite view in the continental United States: the top floor of the De Young museum.

Thank you, Lonely Planet, for this awesome photo of the top floor of De Young.

Thank you, Lonely Planet, for this awesome photo of the top floor of De Young.

3. THE FOOD: Pho, anywhere. Black Rice Pudding at B Star Bar. Sushirito. Burmese Rainbow Salad. Madeleine’s. The Coffee Company espresso. Peet’s Matcha Green Tea Latte, unsweetened. Ginger carrot soup at Beautifull. ANYTHING at Miette. Lavender shortbread cookies at Blue Fog markets. Shrimp quesadilla at Papalote. Sunchokes at AQ. Crab at Crustacean. Risotto made by Jeff. Cookies made by Jeff. Goat cheese dates by Meghan. Deep-dish from Little Star pizza. Avocado icecream. Ethiopian, but even better, Eritrean. Nicoise salad at Cafe Prague. Ah… Cafe Prague with your surly East-European waitresses and your mismatched furniture, how I love thee.

4. THE PARKS: Golden Gate. Presidio. Marin Headlands. Crissy Fields and Marina Green. The dogs, the runners, the tourists, Alcatraz, Angel Island, the smell, the mansions, the Palace of Fine Arts. The Quinceanera dresses and poses and posses. That’s not even mentioning what’s a stone’s throw away from San Francisco: Napa, Sonoma, Guernville, Russian River, lake Tahoe, Pacifica, Pescadero, Pie Ranch and its monthly barn dances, redwood forests, national parks, Yosemite, Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, ay-ay-ay… I’m running out of breath and bandwidth, and need to stop before this become an ode to California, and THAT, my friends, could take YEARS…

5. THE MUSIC VENUES: The Red Devil Lounge, which, incredibly, is CLOSING.  Ireland’s 32, the awful hole on Geary that brings back numerous great memories of watching the Facekicks, back when they still were a unit, and drinking with a large group of friends and friends of friends…The Boom-Boom Room, The Elbo Room, and the rooms and backyards graciously provided by various people for our friends’ improv shows. The second floor of the Rickshaw Stop. The Fillmore, where we saw Balkan Beat Box and Cat Empire. The Independent, and its free movie nights. DNA Lounge and the burlesque shows. And, no, I still haven’t been to the Great American Music Hall…

Many nights well-spent at the Red Devil Lounge, including my 31st birthday

Many nights well-spent at the Red Devil Lounge, including my 31st birthday

6. THE BIKING: The bike ride to Baker Beach. The bike ride to Ocean Beach, through the park. Biking to work, as much as I hate getting there sweaty. Biking to Sausalito over Golden Gate bridge – and taking the ferry back because we ate too much… Biking up the hills to check out the Moraga Stairs. Biking to lake Merced. Biking to El Rio, in the Mission. Biking against wind, going uphill, with fog obscuring everything further than 2 feet away. That’s actually NOT my favorite part.

A small part of the beautiful mosaic at Moraga Stairs.

A small part of the beautiful mosaic at Moraga Stairs.

Ed lets me draft him. In the SF winds, that's true love!!!

Ed lets me draft him. In the SF winds, that’s true love!!!

7. THE FESTIVALS, THE FAIRS, THE FARMERS MARKETS: Really, must I? Yes, I MUST. Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, Outsidelands, Treasure Angel Festival, the neighborhood festivals: North Beach, Haight Ashbury St. Fair, Sunday Streets, farmers markets, all of them: Fillmore, Divisadero, Ferry Building, etc. Beer Fests and Wine Fests at Fort Mason and Renegade Art Fairs at the same awesome Ft. Mason. Haloween, Dia De Los Muertos, Bay to Breakers, Tuesday night – basically anything serves as an excuse for these wonderful SF weirdos to get in costume. Stay weirder than even Portland, San Francisco!!

And I could go on and on and on, but instead, I’ll leave you with a parting shot (ha!) of the Golden Gate bridge.

The fact that you can surf under the Golden Gate Bridge (ok, it's a twice a year thing at best, but it's worth the wait...)

The fact that you can surf under the Golden Gate Bridge (ok, it’s a twice a year thing at best, but it’s worth the wait…). And yes, that’s Ed.

Waimea, Wailua and Waimustweleave???

Over the next few days, due to somewhat inclement weather, we drive around A LOT and get to see a few spots that we missed last time:

One quick stop on the way to the Waimea Canyon lookout. This is just the beginning.

One quick stop on the way to the Waimea Canyon lookout. This is just the beginning.

Even though it’s drizzling a bit, that doesn’t deter us from driving till we get to the Waimea lookout – and it’s absolutely well worth it:

Yes, I may have cranked up the colors a little bit on the camera - but the photos still don't do it justice...

Yes, I may have cranked up the colors a little bit on the camera – but the photos still don’t do it justice…

The clouds are gathering above us and when we finally drive out to the Kalalau lookout, it's shrouded in fog.
The clouds are gathering above us and when we finally drive out to the Kalalau lookout, it’s shrouded in fog.

We eventually return to our favorite camp spot on the island, Blackpot in Hanalei, and wake on Unicornlandia, where rainbows sprout from under ever hill and the surface of the water looks like mercury. Incidentally, we recently watched part of “South Pacific” the 1958 movie of the Broadway hit by the same name, and much of the action in those first scenes takes place in this very spot:

Hanalei Bay on a gorgeous early morning.

Hanalei Bay on a gorgeous early morning.

And in case you're wondering, yes, all the men in this scene are straight. In fact, they're singing about how much they miss "dames," although I, for one, would say: "But boys, you'll always have each other..." *giggle*

And in case you’re wondering, yes, all the men in this scene are straight. In fact, they’re singing about how much they miss “dames,” although I, for one, would say: “But boys, you’ll always have each other…” *giggle*

On our last full day in Kauai, we decide to take the famed Wailua river kayak tour, with the Secret Falls as the final destination. That’s a scenic 4 miles of paddling, plus about a mile’s hike up to the falls. Paddling on the river turns out to be extreme – extremely leisurely that is. Good thing we, Gendreau/Checeanus take our leisure seriously (We even belong to B.A.L.L.S, Bay Area Leisurely Living Society “A Little Drinking Club with a Leisure Problem”). Our guide, Forest, was hilarious and very knowledgeable about fauna, flora and history; the waterfall at the end was nothing to write home about. Apparently it can get much bigger, but the volume is rather unpredictable. Thankfully, our whole motto in life is “Enjoy the journey,” so the disappointment of the destination was easily surmounted…

Maybe we should start K.I.L.L.S. - Kauai Island Leisurely Living Society? What say you, @Anette? :-)

Maybe we should start K.I.L.L.S. – Kauai Island Leisurely Living Society? What say you, @Anette? 🙂

A shrine of flowers right next to the "Secret Falls," where kings and queens of Hawai'i came to bathe. Theirs being a very segregated society, commoners didn't rub shoulders with the hoi poloi and didn't have access to this upper section of teh Wailua river.

A shrine of flowers right next to the “Secret Falls,” where kings and queens of Hawai’i came to bathe. Theirs being a very segregated society, commoners didn’t rub shoulders with the hoi poloi and didn’t have access to this upper section of teh Wailua river.

Awesome petroglyph pointed out by our humorous guide. The glyph stood for "rock where the king/queen's mantle rests while he/she is taking a bath." and also "Do not interfere, you unwashed peasant."

Awesome petroglyph pointed out by our humorous guide. The glyph stood for “rock where the king/queen’s mantle rests while he/she is taking a bath.” and also “Do not interfere, you unwashed peasant.”

Finally, before catching the airplane at 2:00 PM, we decided to heed the advice of a local from the night before and check out the Wailua Falls, a short, five minute detour from the airport. We drive to the lookout – very pretty, safe, whoa, nice waterfall, ok let’s go to the airport now.

But NO: the best part about this fall is the swimming, according to local wisdom. So we head straight for a hole in the fence and begin a ridiculously steep and slippery descent, with the help of roots, branches and the occasional rope put in place by merciful earlier adventurers. Half an hour later we arrive at the glorious base of the falls, sweaty and mud-stained. The current is obviously pretty strong and the Wailua Falls are heavier and stronger than any of the others we’ve seen on this island. But heck, we didn’t slide down our butts for nothing: a bath in is order. The rest is history. I make it only about halfway through the lake before the wind suddenly changes direction and starts blowing heavy vapor in my face. The angst of suddenly breathing air that’s 110% saturated with water is compounded by the cramps from the cold and there you have it: I almost missed the flight back due to a case of drowning. A close call, but the handsomest lifeguard around was there to the rescue, like he usually is. He’s also getting better at reading sudden-onset massive panic symptoms on my face …. Was it worth it, you ask? HECK yeah. Just look at it:

The lifeguard was drinking mate the entire hike down. Those of you who know him will understand....

The lifeguard was drinking mate the entire hike down. Those of you who know him will understand….

Mahalo, dear Mother Island and until next time!

Of Watermelons and Dachshunds

We left Poipu on a sunny morning, wishing goodbye to the Airbnb resident kitty with one last caress on the top of the head and behind the ear. We drove north past Lihu’e and to our favorite place – Cafe Hemingway, finally open – for a wafer-thin omlette, fresh squeezed orange juice inside the Breton-blue building with view of over the little creek and shallows of Kapa’a reef.

A leisurely perusing of some timeless light reading material and a similarly light breakfast full of appreciation of the sunlight which helped grow the 1/2 tomato on the side and the land which provided for the hen whose eggs were so graciously donated for our enjoyment.  For our vegetarian readers, I'll spare the details of the source and creation of the ham.

A leisurely perusing of some timeless light reading material and a similarly light breakfast full of appreciation of the sunlight which helped grow the 1/2 tomato on the side and the land which provided for the hen whose eggs were so graciously donated for our enjoyment. For our vegetarian readers, I’ll spare the details of the source and creation of the ham.

We finish our lunch to prepare for the upcoming Kapa’a farmers marker which we presume is likely the largest on the island (turns out Lihu’e’s is).  We soon find out that instead of noon, the market’s at 3.  Gotta go for a bodysurf session over Kealia’s powerful, but not ginormous rollers.  Well shaped, cylindrical waves, like steam rollers on cruise control with or without a driver, depending on your religious views…(Hey, writer, we’re here to have some lighthearted reading, quit being so philosophical…)  No matter how much one thinks that they have ‘conquered’ or ‘owned’ these waves, it’s like thinking that we can stop a steam roller with a pellet gun, in the end we just managed to work with the momentum.

OK, ok, so the farmer’s market greets with over 40 stands with a rainbows of fruit pouring out of each.  We break into an immediate salivation.  At 2:48, the 12 minutes till the bell to start the market seems like an eternity.  Dragonfruit, Breadfruit, Durian, Apple Bananas, Pineapple, Watermelon and Papaya galore!  So much flavor contained in each one, still 10 minutes to wait!!! We make some small talk to pass the time “These came from the north shore,” water bursting the watermelon at the seems.  This doesn’t help Camelia as her heaven is filled with watermelon and dachshunds.  Still 8 minutes till the bell, and this is not speeding up the clock.  6 minutes! Seems like an eternity…Then the stand owner tells us about the uses, and origins of the importation of the papaya…bam!  Ding, ding, ding!  I guess when you’re interested in something the time flies!  Quick: get a dragon fruit (we’ll figure out how to eat them later), some papaya, bananas, and a watermelon 🙂 Dachschund for sale?  Nope, that’s probably for the best.
We take a backroad from the market, past homes, hillsides, greens, browns, reds, cute bridges, views of all the jutting peaks, and to pick up the Nomad (Homes), and head out west to an expansive, almost deserted beach, Polihale.
Driving past fields of red dirt, green hills and round, heavy clouds on Kauai's West shore

Driving past fields of red dirt, green hills and round, heavy clouds on Kauai’s West shore

The 20 miles (with one stop to get Poke) take over an hour, since even though the posted speed limit is 35, the average speed is 30.  And no one wants to go faster, because as you increase velocity, the interest decreases.  Hearing stories from the Nomad about the origins of the tree species, the medecinal uses of the plants, the rarity of the abundance of bird life on Kauai and the tribal history of the islands, which would have never been addressed at 65 or even 35 MPH 🙂
The last 2 miles are offroading on red dirt.  Yes!  Time for powerslides!!! That one was 3 car lengths, that next power slide was longer than a 2 handed frontside power slide on my skateboard on Lombard street in San Francisco!  Yay rental cars!
We arrive an hour before dusk to where we won’t take the rental car any further on the sand.  Sorry Chevy Cruze, your journey ends here, with dreams of powerslides on the way back.

We get the sunset and sunrise in Polihale, and, boy, it’s all worth it:

The sunset at Polihale regales us with a thousand different shades of pink.

The sunset at Polihale regales us with a thousand different shades of pink.

The sunrise is a different, gloomier vista, and the clouds seem pregnant with water.
The sunrise is a different, gloomier vista, and the clouds seem pregnant with water.

Day 4+5: Leisure on the South Shore

We wake up and immediately think of food. But not just any food. We are both really excited to eat at our favorite place in Kauai, the Hemingway Cafe, right across the street form our hotel, a lovely little place that looks like a coffee shop plucked from the streets of Provence, run by a couple of Europeans who really CAN BAKE and make espressos.
Little do we know that Monday they are closed…
We get breakfast at Java Kai, which is overhyped and overpriced, but they have coffe ice cubes in their iced coffee, so I forgive them. Then we get a cab to take us to the airport and rent a car. From there, it’s time to head south to Poipu, where we found an affordable Airbnb place not too far from the beach.
The drive to Poipu snakes through tunnels of trees and passes green pastures that don’t correspond with my mental image of the South Shore until I remember that the exposed arid red dirt and burnt out grass is actually on the West side of the Island. Kauai has the privilege of being, at its center, the wettest place on Earth, with rain bathing everythday the perpetually cloud-shrouded mount Wailelele, while its Western side sees at most 4″ of rain a year…
On the way to the new abode, we recharge on papaya and other fruit and end the day at Shipwreck beach, where we watch people jump, or fail to jump, paralyzed in fear, from the 30 ft high rock jutting out on the far left side of the beach. The boys claim the bodysurfing at Shipwreck is good, but I find that sand is not tasty, no matter him much of it you are compelled to eat by the ridiculously strong waves, so I retreat to my beach chair and my Corona Lights.

Photo of Shipwrecks' Beach, courtesy of Poipubeach.org.

Photo of Shipwrecks’ Beach, courtesy of Poipubeach.org.

Papayas: one
Corona Lights: ummm. A few?
Sand: around five pounds, equally distributed between swallowed, stuck in my bathing suit and stuck in my body parts. They are going to put be in agroquarantine at the airport, for trying to smuggle Hawaiian soil in my body cavities, but I swear I was only trying to body surf…

The following day we take our time to explore the beaches in Poipu, which are many and all lovely. We also find a Noni tree, whose bizarrely smelling fruit is fermented, turned into juice and used as a (expensive) nutritional supplement. It tastes and smells pretty foul, but I take two bites, nevertheless, just for bragging rights.

The noni fruit is the white blob in the middle. It's also known as "beach mulberry" or "cheese fruit" (think really ripe Gorgonzola). It's also called "vomit fruit." Yes. But it's edible and Hawaiians and other South Pacific people used it in times of famine. So it's good to know I could do it, if I had to.

The noni fruit is the white blob in the middle. It’s also known as “beach mulberry” or “cheese fruit” (think really ripe Gorgonzola). It’s also called “vomit fruit.” Yes. But it’s edible and Hawaiians and other South Pacific people used it in times of famine. So it’s good to know I could do it, if I had to.