Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Back to London, then Cambridge and finally Brighton

I found Alejo in the middle of all the exits of Leicester Square Underground Stations and we headed for his place to leave my bag and rest for the evening. The next day we went out to spend the afternoon in Covent Garden and found ourselves in the middle of a street dance performance done by the Royal Ballet, starting in the window of a clothes shop and ending inside the Royal Opera House it was quirky and fun. We went back to his place to get my bag so I could head to Bassey's place which was near Barking Underground Station. Once there, Bassey picked me up and took me to his house and proceeded to make me an awesome African recipe dinner which was huge! (The first of many delicious and spicy dishes). For the next day, which was a Sunday, Alejo and I had arranged to go explore the university city of Cambridge.
I arrived to Liverpool Station on time and not having a cellphone, I had to resort to a payphone (I know! they still exist, just like the Maroon 5 song) to find Alejo. Having slept in, he got there slightly late but just in time to get the tickets and hop on the train. The train only took us to a certain point where we had to change to a bus that was kind of iffy but did it's purpose. We arrived to a beautiful city full of huge churches and cathedrals. Every block, or even half a block, was another college! We got to see the college where the same Isaac Newton had studied. Kings College Cathedral was the most impressive with and incredible ceiling that made me drool. Alejo had just purchased a super-duper camera with a gazillion megapixels so we got fantastic pictures. I will not bore you with details, so I'll just leave some pictures and the link to the whole album at the end of this post.

We finished the day with a shared dish of roast and the beers of our preference (Stella and Guinness). We headed back to London and met up with Bassey, who was near the area of Liverpool Station, and went out for a beer. The three of us had a nice chat and I discovered the existence of the weirdly good tasting Guinness/CocaCola "Cocktail" Bassey had asked for. Giving in for the day, Alejo headed home while Bassey and I went to his place. The next day I went to downtown London and not wanting to spend extra money for changing zones on the underground I opted on taking the double decker busses until Zone 2, and I was glad I did. Yes, it took much longer but I got to see all the neighborhoods of different cultures. Indian, Muslim, Chinese and so on. Once downtown I did some exploring and again met up with Alejo to help him find a gift for the little girl of one of his coworkers back in Bogota. I, personally, was exhausted after exploring the 4 floors of toys in the Hamseys toy shop. I did, however, get my picture with Star Wars' character (not sure if a Jango Fett or a Clone Ep II) and The Queen! (In Lego).
After looking at the whole shop and not buying anything ( ¬¬ ) I went back to Bassey's place. Once there, I spontaneously asked him after our meal if we could go to Brighton the next day since he had offered from the first day I got there, and it seemed that neither of us had plans for the next day. A little shocked he said yes and we started planning, concluding we would take the bikes and ride around town. The following morning, bright and early, but with a little rain, we started getting ready, tying up the bikes to the car and started on our way to Brighton. We arrived and parked on the outskirts of the city. Before heading off on the bikes, Bassey called up a friend and arranged to meet up with her at a park. We rode down through the city, getting explanations about the buildings and a bit of the history of the city from Bassey. Reaching our destination, we met up with Bassey's friend Morgana who was originally from Spain.

She was friendly and easygoing and a nice person to speak a little Spanish with after only speaking English for many weeks. We ended up getting lunch in an Indian organic restaurant that had fantastic and very tasty vegetarian food. Morgana had some things to do so we said our goodbyes and went to the beach for a while. After a short walk we found another of Bassey's friends, Claudia, and had a snack with her on the beach while we laughed about very naughty jokes. We saw the sunset and had some beers. It was a lovely way to end the day. Since it was getting late, we also said our goodbyes to Claudia and rode back to the car. Before leaving we visited Morgana once more at her apartment to help her move some things. It was a beautiful and comfy place with lots of her art and personality all over the place. It was very welcoming. Giving our best wishes to each other and hoping to meet up again soon someday, we left and headed back to London after a very beautiful and rewarding day. Even Bassey was glowing from meeting up with old friends and his good memories of Brighton. Thanks for the wonderfull trip Bassey!!! It was quite Bright in Brighton. 


Here is the full link to the album: Click ME!!!

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Cardiff and Bristol


The next day I thanked Julia and Jürgen for their incredible hospitality and for all the fun we had had. I packed, we said our goodbyes and promised to meet up again sometime during the rest of my trip. I was off again. Next destination: Cardiff. One of my friends from university has been doing his postgraduate studies there for the last few years. Friend, actually is an understatement. When I started university, he and another two physics student, who were all about to graduate, adopted me like a little sister, so to be figuratively correct, I was going to see my big brother. I got there a little later than planned, but all good. Javier was there waiting for me and after a hug and our many remarks of how different we looked, we walked to his place. After we had caught up on our lives and plans and reminiscing about the old times when I would spend my afternoons at his place in Merida watching movies and eating pizza, I convinced him to watch my favorite 'terror' movie:

The Conjuring. After the movie and a feeble attempt at trying to scare him a bit to no real effect, I was pooped and it was time to get off to sleep. The next day Javier took me out for a traditional English breakfast which was huge, and I actually liked it. I love eggs for breakfast. After that he had to work a bit so I ventured through the city. First the cemetery, then downtown, past the castle, into a park and I found myself a boat ride that would take me to Cardiff Bay. The ride was nice and quiet, and once in the bay I was presented with an assortment of modern and old fashion buildings. I had no idea that Roald Dahl was from Cardiff, but here was a 'Plass' in his name. I walked through it and went to the Wales Millennium Center where there was a performance of professional dancers accompanied by dancers with down syndrome.

It was very well done with choreography and improvisations. Then I headed for the Pierhead where they have a paint gallery on the last floor. After a few pictures, I started to walk down the Wales Coast Path passing by the Y Senedd, the Norwegian Church where Dahl was baptized and finally reaching the Doctor Who Experience building and the Tardis. I headed back downtown passing through The Red Dragon Center that, to be honest, was a rather empty and semi-dead shopping mall. I arrived at Javier's and after I caught my breath from the walk, we were off for a pub crawl. I think we did four pubs. Three, where we drank beer and one of wine, since I already had drank my obligatory Guinness as there weren't any other options in dark beers. Just to clarify, nothing against Guinness, on the contrary, I love the stuff, however I had expected England to offer a wide variety of dark beers, but to my disappointment when I asked, people would look a bit perplexed and would say "we have an amber ale". To which I would shake my head and say "just give me a Guinness". There is a limit to how many Guinnesses one can drink and continue to walk decently, so I opted for wine. Downtown Cardiff at night was a bit empty except for the occasional group of bare-legged university girls and their male friends. I would freeze in their skin! After out fair share of drinking we went back to his place. Next morning after oatmeal and tea, I asked him for some paper and pens and did my best effort to draw Bristol's famous Bridge. I was going to try to hitchhike on my own this time. I thanked him and after saying our goodbyes I left with a heavy heart. I hadn't seen him in so long! It had been great getting to hang out again like in the old times. Thanks for everything Javier! And for putting my clothes out to dry while I was exploring the city. You're a sweetheart! So there I was trying to figure out where the hell to get a ride. It wasn't easy, after asking around and walking quite a bit I finally got to one of the exits. I pulled out my mini-poster and an upturned thumb to the traffic. After like a 15 minute wait, a man in his early 40's asked me, "Are you crazy?". "A bit" I replied. "Hitchhiking, aren't you afraid something could happen to you?"  he asked.  I replied, "Not really, I just need to choose my rides wisely" he looked at me with a quizzical eye and said "I can't take you to Bristol, but I can take you more than half the way in that direction and leave you at a station where lots of cars stop." We chatted all the way switching through a variety of topics: his background, my background, about how crazy I was, and about parenting. Finally reaching my destination, he wished me the best and again gave me one of those quizzical looks before shaking his head and driving off.

The next ride did take me about an hours wait. I finally got picked up by two men in a work van. Turned out they were going to Bristol to buy a fishing boat and bring it back that same day to Wales. As we crossed some huge bridges they gave me some history about them and explained how it was to travel from England to Wales a few years back. They were very nice and interesting to talk to. Once in Bristol they left me in a very strategical point which was a Shopping Plaza called Cabot Circus. Every kind of shop was there assorted in a beautifully modern manner. I called my host and arranged to meet him at a certain point downtown around 5:00pm., I had time. I walked slowly through the city, got myself some food and reached the meeting point. I waited, and waited, and waited. Nothing. I was starting to worry and tried to find WiFi spot so I could communicate. I guess I had a bit of a desperate face because a very nice man approached me and asked if I was lost. I explained what was going on, and very sweetly he offered me his cellphone to call my host. No answer. The man suggested I go into a pub a few steps down the road and get connected to the WiFi there. I thanked him for his help, walked in and got a beer. The internet wasn't working well either but after a while a man came in looking around the pub and after looking at my backpack he said "Grace?" and I was like "Sameer? How did you know I was here?". " I called back the number you had called me from and the guy who answered said you were here. Sorry about my delay, I got caught up at work." Relief, and a new wave of gratitude for the man with the cellphone flooded over me. We headed to his flat which was only two blocks away. After settling in and resting from carrying my backpack, we headed out for some drinks. Well, my drinks, he didn't drink. We pub crawled and chatted away. We had some kebab and then went dancing to a small club. It was a great first night and lot's of fun. Exhausted and sleepy we headed back to his flat and I crashed on his couch.

 Hitchhiking and clubbing on the same day was a bit too much for my system, so the next day I took it much slower. Sameer went to work and I did sightseeing: St Mary Redcliffe Parish Church , Clifton Suspension Bridge, which is celebrating it's 150th anniversary, and a stop at Nero Cafe took up most of my day. I had walked a lot and decided to head back to Sameer's. I was too tired to club or pub crawl but was willing to go for a beer somewhere. We ended up in a cute and stereotypical German Pub and were entertained by a very drunk group who took the stage to dance. After our share of entertainment, we headed back to the flat. Next morning I thanked Sameer for hosting me and taking me out despite his busy schedule. I was off again to hitchhike my way to London.This time it took a bit longer but I finally got picked up by a man in his 60's who took me to a petrol station halfway to London. The whole way there we talked about, plays, musicals and ballets. He gave me many recommendations and told me about his favorites, it was great info. Once at the petrol station, the real challenge began. It took me a full hour and as I was just about to give up, I looked up at a small empty trailer, pointed at my little sign that said 'London' and he nodded. Thank goodness! We talked all the way about places around the world, around England, but mostly about food. He recommended to me lots of things from Scotland and I made mental notes to try them all. As we were entering London he asked me where I needed to go. I told him I needed to get to Leicester Square (I had an appointment to meet Alejo there but doubted I would make it on time) but that at any point was fine with me. He said he would take me there because he had to go through anyway. He was going to Great Ormond Street Hospital. I thanked him for the ride and got there 15 minutes before the agreed time to meet up with Alejo. Hitchhiking proved to be an excellent experience!        

     
Click here to see the full album!

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Birmingham and Stonehenge

While still in London, once Julia told me we were going to Birmingham, I said I wanted to go to Stonehenge the day after the party. She told me that even though she had been in England for four years, there were lots of attractions she hadn't visited and that she would come along with me. Yeay! A partner in crime. There was only one condition: I wanted to hitchhike. And thank goodness, she was all for it! I explained that  my motivation to go to Stonehenge, aside from the typical 'must see' reasons, was because of a music video by a music comedy two-man-band from Norway. I showed her the video and she was hooked! After that day we would constantly have that song stuck in our heads, humming it every so often. It's catchy! Here is the video if you'd like to understand why the frenzy.

Once we arrived in the late afternoon to Birmingham, we started walking down the main square. A curious display of very modern buildings beside very Gothic churches caught my attention. This was a cool and interesting city that we only zoomed through to get to the party.

Things had already started when we arrived and food and good tequila (not the Jose Cuervo junk) were served on a very colorful table. The classic stereotype Mexican hats were floating around the room. It turned out there were two birthday girls, but the one I became most acquainted with and who was Julia's long time friend, was Rea. She was a petite, smart and adorably fun girl! Just like in the movies. You know, like the best friend of the main character who is always cheery, fun and outgoing.
So after many Jello-shots, normal shots, beers, fajitas, roasted marshmallows, the typical Americanized 5 de Mayo piñata and some salsa dancing, we were off to sleep.
The next morning was the big cleanup project and while trying to help I saw a bunch of beer boxes. I asked Rea if I could steal a piece of one, and with a perplexed look, she said "sure". Then I asked her for some scissors and Julia for a sharpie. This triggered Rea's curiosity to ask: "What are you doing?" to which I answered, "Making a drawing of Stonehenge". "We are hitchhiking there today," said Julia."Are you guys nuts?" she replied.

We just grinned and laughed in response. "Wait, if you are going to hitchhike you need to take these, they'll get you the rides," and with that Rea turned around, picked up and gave us two big extra colorful Mexican sombreros. Boy was she right! We said our goodbyes, wished her a happy birthday again and thanked her for the good fun. We walked to the highway, laughing our heads off at how ridiculous we looked but assured by what Rea had said. Well, said and done. We stopped at a spot, turned around, put out a thumb and in 5 seconds there was a car stopping for us. Rea full of grace, I'm calling you a prophet.

Once in the car, the man that picked us up said he couldn't take us to Stonehenge but to a gas station where lots of people went in every direction. He told us he worked with kids with special needs and dedicated his life to that. We only had a short talk, but he was very kind and wished us well when he dropped us off at the station. The next wait was a bit longer, for about 25 minutes. Many people as they passed by would actually apologize for not being able to help because they were going in the opposite direction, or were just too full. So sweet!!! Finally we got a ride with a middle aged couple. The man also worked with children with special needs and even though we never knew exactly what his wife did she told us that in her youth she had gone diving off the cost of Belize for research on the reefs and the sea life found there. They took us a long way, and we chatted happily until another big station. They were sweet enough to give us their number in case we needed help later on. Starving, we went to get a burger, and and not knowing where to stand to get our next ride, we considered that the employees at Costa looked like a nice lot. So, we decided to ask them.  
The boys were more lost than we were, they gave us random instructions until one said it would be better to go to the other highway but it was pretty far off for walking. A second later he said that one of his coworkers had just finished her shift and could probably drop us off there. She looked up after hearing her name, listened to the boy's explanation and said, "sure, I'll give you a ride". We got in her car and crossed to the other side of the highway to  pickup her sister that also worked in Costa, and then we headed to our new hitchhiking spot. The whole time they were rambling about how crazy we were for doing this, getting super psyched to do it themselves one day. They dropped us off and there we were with our thumbs up in the air again. The wait was around 10 minutes, when a woman stopped to give us a ride. She was coming back from one of her son's national motocross competitions. She said he was in 10th place but that he had probably dropped down to 13th by now. Oh by the way, he is only eight years old. She told us all about his competition and we were impressed about how cool and relaxed this mom was. The ride was short, leaving us at a weird intersection with a roundabout with zooming cars. It was starting to get complicated and a bit late. Thirty to forty minutes went by until a young man stopped to pick us up.
He was going to pass right in front of Stonehenge and could drop us off there. His story was split between sad and awesome. He worked for a government department which was in charge of taking kids away from dysfunctional families. He told us about some cases which were horrible and even though it sounded like a heartbreaking job, he worked at doing the right thing for the kids, which made him quite awesome. Another awesome thing was that he lived on a houseboat and could move along the canals all around England. We flooded him with questions about, electricity, and water, and showers and how it all worked. It was very interesting but we were close to our destination. It appeared in the distance. Our ride pointed it out and told us we had to walk down a rocky road to get to the entrance. So a few minutes later he dropped us off and we started walking. We noticed that there were a lot of trailers and people eating and camping out. We took a few pictures of Stonehenge from the distance, and a lady with a very friendly dog came and took some pictures of us.

We kept walking and found this disheveled mid-50's woman in a a dirty flannel onesie along side a very blond and dirty 3 year old looking intently at the ground. We stopped to ask if they needed help with something and they said that a bracelet had broken and they were looking for the beads. As we looked around to help, she asked us if we had come for the Equinox in two days. We told her we had no idea it was happening and gave her the beads we had found. She gave us both a full embrace and sent us on our way. This looked just like the 70's and we had both been hugged by a true hippy. It turned out that the ticket to enter cost £14 and you couldn't even get to the rocks. There was a sidewalk constructed around it and you had to stick to that path. We went up to one of the guards and asked him if there were somewhere to see it closer without paying £14. He told us to walk through a field a few meters away and that we would get a pretty close view from there. And it was actually pretty close, I'm glad I hadn't wasted my money on just a few meters closer. As we were entering the field, we met two guys who were about to leave for Reading and we asked them if they could give us a ride. They said sure, so we took our pictures with Stonehenge and the sunset in the background, listened and sang to Stonehenge by Ylvis (julia had downloaded it) while the boys looked at us weirdly, and we were off again. We had to walk through a field  and a piece of forest to get to the parking lot. We chatted all the way. It turned out the boy driving lived in Reading but was from Brazil and the other boy was Couchsurfing with him and was from California. They dropped us off in the wrong place to get a ride. No one was going to London. In the end, we gave up and walked to the train station to catch the 11:30 p.m. train. We were in London in 17 minutes. Jürgen was back from his trip and waiting for us to get to the apartment. We were so exhausted that I don't remember when I hit the couch. It had been a wonderful fun day and we had met all of these awesome people that not only gave us a ride but told us about their lives. It was curious that most of them were dedicated to helping others. I guess that's why they gave us the rides. It's these little things that make us have faith in humanity once more.
             




























 For the full picture album click here!  




Saturday, September 20, 2014

First week in London


So, after my incredible time in Belgrade, I was off again in Business class to London this time. By the way, I think I hadn't mentioned that while in Istanbul, Alejandro dropped the bomb that he had already payed his rent for the next two weeks and there would be no place for me in his flat, leaving me to fend for myself (putting it in pretty words since I don't want to write all the curses and dirty names that I wanted to call him at the moment). I searched on Couchsurfing and sent requests to like two people. The next day I got an answer from one of them. She was a German girl studying medicine and had a place for me for a couple of nights. That was good enough and I could figure things out later. I arrived at Heathrow Airport where Alejandro was to pick me up (late as customary). He was considerate enough to let me stay at his place the first night, before going to my host's place. Next morning he had to work on a project, so we went to the British Library, which was just a few blocks from King's Cross Station. Those of you who know me well enough will guess my drive to see this place. The library was huge, beautiful and classically modern. Too many floors to explore, and I only ever did an overview despite the many times I would visit it afterwards. We had breakfast in the library and I headed for King's Cross on my own. Once there, I rushed to find Platform 9 3/4 to have my picture taken! I went into the store and gaped at all the very cool (and very pricey) HP gear and books.To avoid getting depressed for not being able to buy everything in the store, I headed to Camden town, which Alejo had recommended. I decided to walk, not knowing my way around the Underground or the double decker buses.

So neglecting to give my new Oyster card the privilege to be used, I walked there. It was a very nice walk and I got to see some churches and interesting buildings on the way. Camden Town is a world of it's own and I loved it. Shops with crafted products and displays of every subculture imaginable. I walked around, bought a few things and then headed back. On the way I found Russell Square which was the area where my host's apartment was. I hadn't come to terms with just how central it was until that moment. Damn lucky once more. After spotting what I thought was her place, I headed back to fetch Alejo and then back to his place to get my bag and head to my host's flat. Once back in Russell Square, Julia opened her door to her flat where I also got to meet her boyfriend Jürgen who is a Surgeon at Great Ormond Street Hospital or what my mom likes to call Peter Pan Hospital. Both are German and have one of the cutest most honest relationships I've ever seen.

They took me out to walk that evening and we walked to the Thames river and reached Saint Paul's Cathedral. We went to a nice pub on the river where I had my most delicious (and later to discover, only good and non disappointing) dark beer.The next day Julia got up early for school and Jürgen left later in the afternoon for Germany for a week. I, having bought a London book the previous day with tourist information, decided to go to the British Museum which was just a few blocks away. As much as I tried to get organized to take advantage of as many free tours as I could. There was no way I was going to get to see a significant fraction of this place. It was Huge. Yes, with capital H.

After a tour and a few pictures, I was starving. I discovered a convenience store called Sainsbury where I got myself a roll, cookies and an awesome Belgium chocolate milkshake. I had found the place I would be surviving off of for the better part of my UK trip. To not make the story boring, I walked a lot! And despite Julia's busy schedule, she took me to some awesome places, from the must see Tower Bridge, Tower of London and Albert Hall to the small coffee shops and pubs she liked. We were having a great time together, to the degree that on Wednesday when I was considering to search for a new host, since we had only agreed on a couple of days, Julia said we would be going to the Opera on Friday.

So it seemed I would be sticking around a little longer, I was thrilled! The opera was to be performed at the Royal Opera House. Julia was doing an exceptional hosting job despite her busy schedule. So on Thursday we got organized to get the tickets the next day in the morning. After planning everything, Julia told me that a friend of hers was having a Mexican themed birthday party and in her words 'what better than to take a Mexican to a Mexican party'. There I was with plans all the way up to Sunday. This was turning into a very productive and fun first week. So, Friday we went to the opera to see The Barber of Seville which was impressive and very funny. 





After our glamorous evening, except for my green tennis shoes since I didn't have high heels, we headed to one of Julia's favorite French pubs where we had a beer and talked to some random drunk birthday celebrators. After that, we headed to a few clubs and danced with some Irish and English weird fellas we just happened to start talking to randomly on the street and that took us to our last club of the night. Free styling was taking on a whole new meaning. On Saturday morning Julia had business to manage, so I met up with Alejo to have lunch together at the Borough Market. Only that finding Alejo wasn't so easy. There were like 5 exits to the station we had agreed to meet up at and I didn't have a cellphone. While trying to find WiFi so I could message him, this very kind fellow on his bike came up to me and asked me if I was lost and needed to find something, I said that it was more like I was trying to find someone. To that he said 'I can't help you out much with that'. I told him I was looking for exit 2 but didn't see any numbering. We asked a man in charge and he told us that there was no numbering to the exits. Palm-face! He asked me if I had a number and offered me his cellphone. Extremely thankful, I called Alejo and he told me where he was. Still feeling lost, my new friend said he would stick with me until I found Alejo. We started talking and he was very excited to learn that I came from the Yucatan close to Cancun. He asked me where I was staying and I said I was Couchsurfing. He told me that he also did Coushsurfing and that if I needed anywhere to stay later on, his place was available. Can you believe my luck? In London, one of the most expensive and demanded places for couches, I was being offered a place to crash!!! I discovered his name was Bassey and we exchanged contact info.

We found Alejo, who he was also pleased to meet, and after a few more comments and plans on meeting up later on, he was off once more on his bike. Borough Market is a very beautiful, crowded, diverse, and sinful place for those who love to eat, better said, everyone. Breads, juices, and typical dishes from every corner of the world were united in this tiny two-block market. We started with a cheese olive bread then a German hot-dog, then Japanese Dumpling, Melted cheese on potatoes and Scottish meatballs with egg. All of these accompanied by orange juice, berry smoothies and sangria. And to wrap it up, a slice of blueberry cheesecake! I said it before, a sinful place. Barely being able to walk, Alejo headed back home and I headed for Victoria Station where I was to meet Julia to catch the bus to Birmingham for her friend's Mexican birthday party. Another adventure was awaiting us there.         
     
Here is the link to the pictures of my First Week in London

Sunday, September 14, 2014

17 hrs in Belgrade, Serbia and the story behind 'They say I've got Mangas'

There we were, finally at the airport. Curiously the night before I had no idea what airline I was flying because it didn't say anywhere on my confirmation email. This was the only flight I had gotten directly with Skyscanner. It was a flight to London with a 17 hour stopover in Belgrade. You might wonder why I would choose a flight with such a long stop. Well truth be told, two factors helped me make the decision. First, because it left at a more decent time than one directly to London, and second,  the airport in Belgrade was named after Nikola Tesla, so I took it as a sign. Thank goodness I had the app Tripit that contained all the info of my flight and the airline! So I went up to the desk of Air Serbia, showed my passport and got two tickets for my flights. Both were business class! The woman asked me if I wanted to check my bag so I went for it. Only after I watched it roll away did I ask 'Do I get that in Belgrade or in London?', she answered 'In London'. So partly, I was screwed. I only had my jacket and my wallet in my carry on. I would have to endure.
So right before boarding, I bought myself a box of Turkish Delight and hopped into my business class seat. As soon as I sat down they offered me a glass of orange juice and a cool towel to freshen up. We were only 3 people in that class, and once we were up in the air I was the only one that ate. Lots of salmon!!! And Serbian white wine, and coffee. Since I was the only one drinking, each time I looked out the window they would serve me more! If I'm not mistaken, I think I ended up drinking the whole bottle, resulting in me arriving a bit tipsy to Serbia, to say the least.
 So there I was, with just a little backpack, wondering how I was going to survive 17 hours in Belgrade if I couldn't even walk in a straight line! I had arranged to stay with a Couchsurfer host named Denis, we had been talking for weeks and he had given me instruction on how to get to his place.  I changed some money, got on a bus and headed to downtown Belgrade to take another bus in the terminal where this first bus would leave me. The only problem was that it did not leave me at a terminal. It left me at a roundabout in the middle of the city and I had no idea where to go. Having no internet or way to communicate with Denis, I decided to look for a hostel, connect and explain and apologize to him. So I started to walk in no particular direction on a street going slightly uphill. I reached a park with a massive church and  I decided to make a pause and take a picture. Later I would discover that this was the Church of Saint Sava, the largest Orthodox Church in the world and one of the most emblematic buildings in Belgrade.


Just as I had finished taking the picture, a girl about my age and another young fellow were walking in my direction so I asked them if they knew of any hostels in the area. The girl was a local and the guy was French, and he was couchsurfing with her. She very kindly took the time to look on her cellphone for some hostels near by.
We started chatting  while she searched and up came yet another pair of fellows from Greece. They were looking for a cafe and were asking for directions. We all ended up chatting there for like 45 minutes and after the girl gave me some addresses I ended up going with these two Greek guys to meet up with a local girl who was going to tour them around during their stay. So sweet, they promised that we would all look for a place for me to stay afterwards and that the local girl might even know some places. So we took a bus, walked along semi-deserted streets and arrived at the cafe. After a few minutes we met her and sat down at a table for some tea. We got around to introducing ourselves. Her name was Andjela and the boys were Alex and John. Andjela was happy I spoke Spanish since she was learning it herself. We all got  talking and having a good time. John and I got into a philosophical conversation and also talked a bit about traveling. I told him about the places I had visited so far, that I only had a few hours left in Belgrade and I had no idea what to do with myself. To that he said 'Well, as we say in Greece, you've got Mangas'. After looking at my very perplexed face he explained that  "Mangas", is like saying, you've got guts. I really laughed at that and turned around and told Alex my new Greek word by throwing my fist in the air and saying 'I've got MANGAS!'.

He had a laugh at that and asked me to sign a Serbian flag he had bought and that he wanted all the people he met on the trip to sign. Great idea! I'll have to remember to do that in the future too. Around 11 pm I asked Andjela if she knew of any hostels nearby with easy access to take the bus back to the airport. To which she answered. 'I live 20 minutes away from the airport. You're staying at my place' disbelieving my luck, as much as the boys disbelieved my good luck, we said our goodbyes, which were very difficult even if we had just know each other a few hours. Later on I realized that, very stupidly, I never took a picture of us all so I have no pictures of the boys but they were kind enough to send me one to put in this post.So we were off to Andjela's place.
She lived on the last floor of a residential building offering a fantastic view of the city. I learned that her dad had a dance group that traveled all over the world and she even had a framed newspaper clipping cut from a Mexican newspaper with a picture of him dancing when he had gone to perform in Mexico City  many years back. Such a cool coincidence! She offered me some food her grandma had made which was some awesome typical Serbian bread style dish. Also, she gave me some cookies from the area called Plazma.


They are fantastic! I wish I could get them here!!!  I took a shower and we got to bed. It wasn't until this point that I finally got connected and could tell Denis what had happened. Denis, if you're reading this I am terribly sorry! I was drunk and lost and had no internet. I know it's a terrible excuse but it's all I have! Please come to Mexico so I can make up for it.
The next morning we set out to have breakfast and for me to catch my bus. Andjela insisted that I had to try a typical pastry and I was glad she did. We picked up this bread at a bakery with some yogurts and I am telling you, It is really good! While waiting for the bus, she decided she would take me to the airport which I was really thankful for because I think I wouldn't have made it any other way having to take 3 different buses. Although the total time of travel was only like 20 minutes. At the airport I went to the souvenir shop and since Andjela had a Mexico key chain, I thought it was only fair I had one from Serbia.



This is how my 17 hours in Belgrade, Serbia ended. I met wonderful people with warm hearts that made my stay so great that I wouldn't have wanted it any other way. Thank you so much Alex and John for your instant friendship, and you Andjela for your hospitality, your trust and your bright and cheerful personality!  You are wonderful people of this world and I can't wait to see you again. Come visit me in Mexico!

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The remaining 3 days and a half of my time in Istanbul

So by this point we had reached Wednesday, day 4 into the trip. And this is where the real challenge began. The Topkapi Palace. It is extraordinarily massive and every room is so full with artifacts and history its really hard to remember even half of all I saw. The architecture, the mosaics, the furniture, the ceilings! It was just so much and it exhausted my legs to as far as they could resist. Because we didn't just do the Topkapi, but also a Christian church, and the Archaeology museum (where there were statues dating 1694-1594 B.C.!). And then on to our favorite place to relax with a Narguile and Çay. I can't describe it all, so I would recommend that you just look at the pictures.



For the next day, we kept on that same path: Museums. We did the Science Museum and the Mosaic Museum (very beautiful pieces there) and the Basilica Cistern, which was impressive. Darkly illuminated, it would work perfectly in an Indiana Jones movie. The Medusa heads, that were quite massive, were a weird attraction in the cisterns creating a creepy environment around them. 

And for what it's worth, after that we were off to our favorite place yet again, and this time we met a nice guy to chat with. We started talking and discovered he was from Belgium but also was part Turkish and that he had a Colombian girlfriend from San Andres and had traveled much of the European world already at his young age. Just for the record, Colombians! You guys are everywhere aren't you? Even though we were close to reaching the end of our trip, he recommended some things for us to do and foods yet to try. He was very nice and interesting and we had a good evening chatting with him. When it was time to leave, the man that charged at the exit bid us farewell by saying 'See you tomorrow' to which both of us said, 'You are probably right'.
So there went 2 days, I know there is not much description here, but honestly, we only walked and did sightseeing. Again, look at the pics.
Getting to our place, Ati and Ozgur were there to inform us that we needed to change to one of the other houses the next day, which was fine because it was only a few blocks away.  We would be in the same room I had been in the first day while I waited for Alejo.



Tired of museums, the next day we opted for a relaxing day on an Island. Turned out to be that Büyükada wasn't as relaxing as we expected. I was dying to get the chance to swim again so I took my bathing suit along expecting some beach to stretch out on. No such thing as beach! People were swimming but it was on a rocky shore and slippery with vegetation. I insisted on getting to swim a bit, but being that there was no place to rinse off the sticky salf water, Alejo decided to be boring and sit and wait for me.


To my delight the water was great and not as salty as I expected.  I had fresh, sticky free skin after getting out of the Marmara sea. After that we wen't to have what was our worst meal of the whole trip, compared to all the other wonderful meals we had had. I don't know if it's because I grew up eating wonderful fish and seafood, but these guys really didn't know what they were doing. Neither Alejo's fillet nor my anchovy-ish kind of food, was well garnished or well served. Disappointed about the result of this day we got some ice cream to wash away the taste and did the only thing that we knew would not do us wrong. Narguile and Çay, and our last one for that matter. We went back to our place, packed, and were picked up by Ozgur to go to the new place.



So the week was up. Being pretty much already packed, we went for breakfast at Simit Sarayi in Taksim Square and then headed back to get our stuff. We arrived to the bus stop for the airport by taxi and weren't able to take the 1 pm bus because it was full. We waited for the 2 pm bus which arrived at 1:30 so that we could load our bags. Once I was on the bus I felt something was missing around my neck, and that's when I freaked out. I had forgotten my passports!!! I ran out to tell Alejo, and he was gonna go to the new place to get them but we decided it was better if I went, just in case I took too long, he would take the bags to the airport and wait for me there. But if I didn't make the 2 pm bus, I wouldn't make the flight! I took a deep breath, got in a taxi and prayed this guy spoke English. I lucked out. He understood me perfectly and the entire situation, so we rushed on our way. Problem was that since we were in a new place for only the last night I wasn't even sure how to get there by car! I vaguely described where I thought it was and he answered, 'ok, I know'. How did he know? I have no clue, because this place from the outside looked like any other house, but he took me right to the door and said 'Go, I'll wait for you!! I went, rang the bell and the man that opened said 'You forgot your passports, I have them in the kitchen come' We hurried up, I thanked him a billion times and dashed back to the taxi. we had done all of this in about 8 minutes. Relieved I had my passport, we chatted all the way back and he even gave me a new Turkish name that started with G, but that I can't remember. All I know is that it meant something like garden of roses. Of course I took a picture with my savior and prince in shining armor and got back to the bus 15 minutes before 2 pm. We had done it in 15 minutes. I got back in the bus sat down completely awe struck at the incredible luck I had. To think, this would just bethe beginning of my lucky day and the rest of my travel.


I would like to give special thanks to Ati and Ozgur for making our stay very comfortable, for giving me a place to rest even though I got there very early in the morning before check in time. If anyone would like to stay with them, the place belongs to Emre and here is their site on Airbnb: Emre's place with Ati and Ozgur

I almost for got, the Pictures for this post are from SAM_0919 up to the last one. 

Monday, September 8, 2014

My next 24 hrs in Istanbul



Before I continue with the story, I must make you listen to the song that tormented me the rest of my time in Istanbul, thanks to my mother. She sent me this video from Loony Tunes, about Istanbul no longer being called Constantinople. This was the song that Alejandro got sick and tired of hearing, thanks to my endless singing, humming and mumbling of it. 

Now that I have that stuck in your head, let's continue. So next morning after having breakfast (orange juice, Simit, and other breads they were selling on the street), we headed to Kabataş to catch a boat that made a few stops along the European cost of Istanbul, as well as the Asian side. This 'Hop on hop off' boat along the Bosphorus was very inexpensive, making 4 stops before heading back to Kabataş, for only 15 Turkish lira (which is like US$7.5). If I remember correctly, we traveled with this line: http://www.pereme.com.tr/en_hop-on-hop-off-stopping-by-at-the-national-palaces-bosphorus-tour, for anyone who plans going there in the near future. This is a great option.



So, we went from Kabataş, through Beşiktaş (we didn't hop off here), Emirgan, Küçüksu (Asian side), Beylerbeyi (Asian side), and back to Beşiktaş (where we did hop off).  When in Küçüksu (picture above), we had lunch and a great piece of chocolate cake. It was a beautiful afternoon with a great view. We did a few more stops before heading back to the European side and to Beşiktaş. Here we got off and got distracted in the shops, but once we realized we were going to be late, we ran for it! And as we reached the dock, we watched our boat leave without us. So we walked back to Kabataş, which wasn't that bad in the end. We saw some nice buildings on the way and then had a big well deserved meal in Taksim Square.

 Starting the next day, also with a big meal, we had the traditional Turkish breakfast. The restaurant was close to Galata Tower and  called Cafe Privato. They had fresh organic food and a wonderful environment looking out to the tower. As you can see in the picture, it was huge and extremely delicious, which was just as well because we had a very long day ahead of us. After stuffing our faces with all the little dishes of cheese, eggs, honey, fruits and olives. We wobbled to the Galata tower that looked like it could offer a promising panoramic view of the city.




 

Getting to the door we entered an elevator and went straight up to the restaurant in the tower and from there climbed up a flight of stair to the very top and got a wonderful view, as we had expected, which produced some fantastic pictures. As was normal on this trip, we there were cloudless blue skies with lots of sunshine. After we had taken our share of pictures, we headed back down and then onward to the Grand Bazaar. There we saw many very old shops and a very bent man making golden thread in a hidden patio in the Bazaar.  We walked through and came out at the Nuruosmaniye Mosque, and since it was getting hot and muggy, we went in to sit on the rug and chill for a bit until we regained our energies.We continued to walk and ended up in front of the working post office which was a museum in itself! It has old fashion writing desks and beautiful stained glass windows. 

After or short stop here we finally headed for the grand Hagia Sophia, where we bought a 3 day pass that included a few interesting museums and the Topkapi Palace. We entered the Hagia Sophia and ....Oh surprise! There was restoration going on inside (it follows me). So the pictures are good but not as great as I had expected.When we had taken our share of pictures here, we headed back home to psychologically prepare ourselves for the amount of museums we would be seeing in the next few days. 



For a complete view of the PICTURES, check out my Flickr account. https://www.flickr.com/photos/128323769@N04/sets/72157648945914657/The pictures SAM_0516 to SAM_0912 make reference to this post.






Saturday, September 6, 2014

My first 24 hours in Istanbul, Turkey

It was a sleepless flight. The man behind me had a baby that wouldn't stay still, and the girls in front wouldn't stop gossiping and moving around, ending up in me being in a bad mood to start the day. And it didn't improve. At 6 am, having landed and in the airport, having my passport and Visa to enter the country checked, I discovered there was no internet. No matter, I'd get connected once I was at the place I was staying at. I took a bus to downtown that cost 14 Turkish Lira (about $7) and that took around 45 min to get there. Once in Taksim Square, at around 7am, I started asking people for directions to the address I had. Oh surprise, people would freak out at me speaking to them in English and would just leave, and the ones that did stick around long enough had no idea where it was. Until I bumped into this nice lady that took me to a man that spoke English very well and had an iPhone to look up the address. He showed me the map and pointed me in a direction. I did not reach my destination, I felt I was walking to nowhere. By 9am I was tired of carrying my bag in the hot muggy weather and collapsed onto a bench in a park close to Taksim Square again. I took out my tablet and analyzed the address and the offline Google map I had, I kind of figured out at least what the correct direction was and started walking again. I took a picture of the monument in the middle of the square to orient Alejandro when he arrived later in the afternoon, so he didn't have to go through what I did.


 On the way I asked a taxi driver if I was going in the right direction and he said I was and that I had to turn on the corner of a certain hotel. I walked about 15 minutes and turned at the hotel that said the exact street I was looking for and after 5 minutes more searching, I found the place. I rang and knocked and no one opened. Great! Stranded in this muggy weather with a sore back and sleep deprived. Now what? Luckily, after about 5 minutes this girl walked out of the building. I asked her if she knew Ati, the person in charge of the building. She said he was out but would be back soon and suggested that I give him a call. I didn't have a phone, so I told her I would opt to wait for him. Very kindly, as German people usually are, she lent me her phone to give him a call. He answered and said he'd be there in 30 minutes. Not wanting to stay on the street, I told the girl I would wait inside in the tiny hallway till he arrived. She locked the door and left so I tossed my stuff on the floor and fell on top for a small nap.
 When Ati arrived, he informed me that there were no more rooms available in this building (where we had originally booked on Airbnb), so I was like 'umm.... now what?'. 'But!' he said, 'you'll be staying in the building next door all to yourselves', so that made up for my shock. The rooms in the new building weren't ready so Ati took me to another of the places they owned and gave me a room to sleep in while they got our place ready and while Alejo got there.
So around 6:30pm after I had rested up a bit we went to the new building and Alejandro showed up around 8 pm. I finally had a decent night of sleep, so the next day we were ready to start exploring Istanbul.



We started our day walking towards a large building which ended up being the entrance to the Grand Bazaar, which was closed since it was Sunday. We got a map at the book section right outside of the Bazaar as it started to pour buckets! We waited until it was only a drizzle to continue. Everything being wet, we just started to walk in no direction in particular, and disappointed that we had kind of walked in vain, we went into this place to sit down and rest. We hit the Jackpot! This would become the place we'd visit 4 times in the week we spent in Istanbul. It was a wonderful space to chill, have uncountable amounts of çay (Turkish tea, pronounced chai) and smoke mint/rose and other flavored Nargiles. No alcohol was sold which just made it a much more mystic and  entrancing environment to relax. You could stay there for hours (and we did) and not notice how time went by.


After our very long break, we walked and looked around the Mollafenari Mahallesi which is a cemetery, and then headed for the magnificent Blue Mosque which I won't even bother to describe. You can just look at the pictures by clicking the link at the end of this post. Here is one to give you a taste: 




 After going  through the mosque we sat down to listen to the afternoon prayers that the Imans sing through huge speaker. Just listen to it for yourself


video

After this break we decided to do one more mosque to the very south of Fatih called the Little Ayasofya Mosque. It was little indeed compared to the Blue Mosque we had just seen but it was just as beautiful and enchanting for its intimacy and ducks running around. It had a gorgeous little graveyard and little restaurants in the courtyard.
After this we were basically pooped, so we headed back to our place in Taksim for a good 
night sleep after a lot of walking to get ready for a new exciting adventure: The Asian side of Istanbul.

From the first picture (SAM_0346) up to picture SAM_0516  make reference to this post


Wednesday, September 3, 2014

60 hrs in Denmark

So, at 9:30pm was my flight from Fort Lauderdale to Copenhagen, Denmark with Norwegian Airways, I was to be on this flight 9hrs and was wondering how to survive it. I had never done such a long flight before and I expected the worst because I had gotten the cheapest flight to Europe possible. I was allowed 10kg on board and I was only carrying 7kg and my purse that contained my wallet and my tablet. I was very pleasantly surprised to find a very comfy seat with a tablet integrate to the front seat where I could watch movies, TV series, play games, and see the map of the plane's trajectory. In addition they had USB ports to recharge your phones and tablets. And if that wasn't enough, they had something that I personally considered very cool, which was a light changing system, where the atmosphere would change from green to blue to yellow and so on depending the time zone you were traveling to in order to avoid jet lag. Totally worked! I watched 'The Book Thief' on the tablet, then fell asleep and woke up to a sunny Copenhagen, jet lag free. I felt as they say here, 'Fresca como lechuga' (fresh as a lettuce) and ready to start my first day in Europe. Since like one month before, I had arranged through Couchsurfing my stay with a girl named Suzanne who lived in a town called Farum, 20 km north of Copenhagen. During our chats before the trip she recommended that I learn some Danish Sign Language (that's how she communicates since she is mostly deaf). She even sent me the page to learn online. Problem is you need to know Danish to know Danish Sign Language, so to make the story short, I gave up. And just in case you're  thinking that all sign languages are the same, well they're not.. I think that even American sign language and British sign language aren't the same, now that is crazy. Anyway, we had arranged to meet at her place at 8pm. I arrived in Copenhagen Airport at 12:30 had a good 7 hours to look around. I picked up a free map from the airport and took off. I got on a train to nowhere in particular and started walking. As is typical with me, the first thing I bumped into was a cemetery, and yes I like cemeteries, so I took pictures. My mom had insisted I see the Little Mermaid statue that was close to the touristic part of the city. It wasn't terribly close to where I started out at, but I'm a walker, so I headed in that direction. There were lots of parks and sunny blue skies. Also, the amount of bicycles and babies is impressive. Even more so, the amount of moms on bicycles with little baby carts attached to them. I guess the baby boom is on. After many stops and picture taking, I arrived to the Kastelle. The castle island where there is a big fortress and the mermaid statue, and oh surprise! It's tiny! Very pretty, but very small. The castle island is very beautiful though, and the interesting part is that it's shaped like a star, you can see it in the image below.


It is very nice to walk around and see the buildings and statues. My mom had sent me a song from my childhood called Wonderful Copenhagen from the movie of Hans Christian Anderson to listen to before I got to Copenhagen. Fortunately I didn't listen to it, otherwise it would have been stuck in my head the whole time there (didn't have such luck in other places) 
Tired of walking I headed to the nearest station to go to Farum, it took around 30- 40 min to get to the town. Having no internet on my tablet, I needed to ask for directions to get to my host's place. Everyone in Denmark seems to speak English, and pretty well too, better than some Americans I know. Even so, it was easy to find her place. I arrived to her door to find a limping Suzanne! She had twisted her ankle and was waiting for her flat mate to take her to the hospital. While we waited for him to arrive we talked a bit and understood each other very well, Suzanne spoke very good English and even though I knew no Danish Sign Language, she understood me very well too.  Per arrived to take us to the hospital, and we went talking all the way. I can certainly say that I have never had so much fun in a hospital before. We had to wait a lot, so it was great having Per making jokes about everything and running Su around in her wheelchair. 

Suzanne and Per at the hospital, being a bit silly.  

The fun ended around 2:30 am when they had finally finished scanning and studying the foot in question and put a removable cast on. We headed home and  I died on my bed in the living room. 
Suzanne woke me up to a nice simple breakfast and we chatted about what to do in Farum. She gave me a map, pointed out some places worth seeing,, and sent me off to explore the world. Farum, being a small but very nice town, had very traditional houses to take pictures of and wonderful lakes and forests to explore. I took my time walking but got home early enough for dinner and to get organized for the next day that I was heading back to Copenhagen.  


So next morning, I went to the store to pick up a package from the post office for Su and to buy some supplies for the day. Got home, we said our goodbyes, some sign language mixed up with yoga, as you can see in the picture, and I packed to hit the road at noon. Here I'd like to give special thanks to Suzanne for taking me in and for the wonderful fun conversations we had. Even Per was surprised that we understood each other so well, like if we had been friends for years, to the degree I had to tell Su what Per was saying every once in a while. Thank you guys! You must be some of the funnest people in Denmark! 
And as I learned, the first rule in Denmark: Go to a hospital to have fun!!!


Back in Copenhagen, I walked around a lot. Parks, botanical gardens, main buildings... I could go on and on but I'll just bore you and it's much more interesting to see pictures for that. I'll leave the link at the bottom. So after walking, eating and drinking, I headed to the airport around 7:30 pm and just chilled and rested there till my flight at 1:50 am. Had a beer before boarding and then I was off to a new adventure. Turkey!