Chuseok Part II: Busan

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The day we left Seoul was a traveling day, nothing was planned other than arriving to Busan. We did not however think we were going to arrive as late as we did. The trip under normal circumstances should have taken 3 hours 45 min to 4 hours 15 min. It ended up taking 7 and a half hours. We were in traffic from the time we left Seoul until we arrived to Busan. It wasn’t a huge deal because like I said we had nothing planned, but looking at the gps two hours and being no where close to Busan and not knowing how much longer we had felt like a joke. When we finally got to Busan and arrived at the hostel we were only 5 minutes past the 11pm deadline for check in; We all showered, changed and then found a place to eat. We looked for a bar or two, but decided to go back to the hostel for an early night. Most of us ended up staying up until 5:30am, so much for the early night.

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The following day we went to Gamcheon Culture village. Gamcheon is considered to be the Rio of Korea, it was once a slum and now it’s a tourist attraction. In 2009 it received a colorful facelift; murals, art work and sculptures were added, houses and alleyways were painted vibrant colors and they even added a little scavenger hunt to visit various locations and collect stamps. It was awesome and I think the group was pleasantly surprised, especially since most of them didn’t have any idea of what it was.

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Later that night we went out to the only place you should go out to on a Thursday night in Busan, Thursday Party! Yes, that’s the bars name. Unfortunately it didn’t look like we were going to be able to go at first. Our first day in Seoul going to the hostel Logan lost his wallet on the metro, up to this point it wasn’t an issue. At one of the bars in Seoul it almost was, but the bouncer ended letting him in. The bouncer at Thursday party did not, even with a picture of his passport on his phone. So, Logan, Sebastian, Joey and I regrouped at the convenience store, bought some drinks and brainstormed how we were going to get him in. We tried duplicating our stamps onto his arm, but none came out clear enough; we thought maybe he could hop the railing that was open to the street, but we didn’t know how Koreans would receive this, maybe they’d rat us out; I then remembered I had my license in my wallet! We say all Asians look the alike and Koreans say the same for us. I already had the stamp so I didn’t need to show it again. We planned that I would wait past the bar while the three of them would attempt for him to get a stamp. While we decided on this, the others left for a bar next door, before joining them we thought it’d be a good idea to try so that after we could go back. We set the plan into motion, from the sideline I saw the bouncer check the id, look at it and give him the stamp. They got in, got out, we joined the others, drank, listened to the music being played (it was a foreigner bar) and then spent the rest of the Thursday night partying at Thursday Party.

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The next day our only plan was to visit Haedong Yonggungsa Temple, or the water temple. It was a good thing too because we weren’t getting up much earlier than we did. It also took pretty long to get there. The temple is a Buddhist temple built in 1376 situated on the coast, this aspect makes it one of the most unique temples as most are found in the mountains. Because it was Chuseok it was flooded with Koreans and we spent about as much time there as one could walking around a temple, about an hour. On the way back we decided to forgo the bus and opt for a taxi instead. And me we, I don’t mean me, I was 100% for taking a bus back. The journey to find a taxi led us to the Lotte Outlets, a giant outlet mall built in a modern Greek shopping mall style. Every store you can imagine international and domestic brands were found there, there was even a department store for those who decided they didn’t actually want to shop at the outlets. As the only group of foreigners there (I’m basing this off of not seeing any) it was very interesting to witness and experience Koreans living and doing things in a very western way, something I would do back home. Nobody bought anything, but we did get separated from each other. We never found any taxis, but we were able to find a metro stop a short walking distance away.  It was Friday night, we had to wake up at 6:30am the next morning to go on a octoberfest/lantern festival excursion, but that didn’t stop Andile and I from indulging a Friday night out in Busan. It did however, for everybody else.

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Out till 4:30am, up at 6:30am was how my Saturday began, a two and a half hour bus ride to the German village, *there is a German village in a place called Namhe because the Koreans who went to Germany after WWII as part of Korea’s investment in their youth and future program, missed it so much that when they came back they decided to build a replica of a German village,* more drinking until 3:45. Another 2.5 hour bus ride (caused by traffic, was only suppose to be an 1.5) to the lantern festival in Jeju, arrive back to Busan around 11, shower, change, eat then go out for our last night out and the end to our vacation.

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As someone who enjoys solo travel those 9 days were exhausting with the only real reprieve from each other coming during sleep, however I could have spent another week with them and I think everyone else felt the same.  To spend 9 straight days together and not get sick of one another, is in my opinion how we know we’ve got ourselves a good group.

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This deserves it’s own special section:

After the water temple and finding our way to the metro from the outlets, we decided to go to a pizza place under Christian’s friends suggestion.  Pizza in Korea is normally not good (I can eat it, but I don’t fully enjoy it) and they put weird stuff on it like: corn, shrimp, sweet potato, and any other weird thing that doesn’t belong on pizza.  The Busan place, Slice of Life is the closest thing to New York pizza I’ve ever had outside of New York, bar none (I don’t think I’ve ever used that phrase before, but it certainly fits).  I almost want to say it was New York pizza, but you gotta be in New York for that. I obviously got a whole pie to myself.

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Check out my friends Sebastian’s blog for a different perspective on the trip

https://www.sebastianburger.com/single-post/The-7-circles-of-Holiday

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Chuseok Part I: Seoul

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Chu-what….? Chuseok pronounced Chu-sock is the Korean thanksgiving. This year it was called the golden holiday because it fell precisely in the middle of the week, which prompted the government to declare the Monday (between the two weekends) a day off, giving us a total of 10 days.  From what my co teacher tells me it’s normally only 3 or 4 days. It would have been nice to leave the country and explore a new one, but flights were ridiculously expensive and besides, I’d only just arrived in Korea, I didn’t feel a strong urge to go traveling just yet.

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We decided on Seoul and Busan, Seoul is the largest city in Korean and one of the largest in the world with 10 million people and Busan is the second largest city in South Korea with 3.5 million people. We planned four night in each and by we, I mean my friends and I; 12 from orientation plus 2 who had been living in Boseong =14 for Seoul and 9 plus 1 arriving later for Busan. I’d never traveled with so many people before, my past travels were either solo or with a friend or two. As a solo travel I despised big groups staying at hostels because they’re usually set on each other’s companionship and rarely branch out to meet new people, which if you’re a solo traveler is something you must do. Also, even though you may be invited to join the group, you feel removed because of the past memories shared and talked about between them, things you can’t relate to. On the other hand, if you form a group of solo travelers, the common bond you share of being alone is something that others can easily relate to and join without feeling removed it. For the first time I was going to be one of those groups and I knew it was going to be an interesting experience.

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Large groups move slow, like a bear waking from hibernation, it takes time for them to fully be awake. We found this out our first full day when our plan was go to Seodaemun Prison and then either the Lee Samsung Art Museum or the War Museum.

*A little history about Korea, the Japanese forcibly took control of and exercised complete rule over Korea from 1910-1945. During this time they tried to wipe out Korean culture, their language, their customs and instill Japanese ones. During this time Korea was basically one giant cell, prisons dotted the country and hundreds of thousands of Koreans were incarcerated, tortured and killed.  Seodaemun Prison is one of these that has been preserved to serve as a reminder of this period and to remember those who for those who lost their lives trying to stand up to Japanese rule.  Today, this still remains a cause for contention between the two countries.

We successfully visited the prison and got a snack afterward (something I may have forgone if I was traveling alone), but by the time we had finished it was around 4 and both the museums closed at 6, we didn’t have enough time. So, we decided to go to Itaewon, a famous tourist district of Seoul. Itaewon was nothing special, full of overpriced shops and chain restaurants, but we did find a place that sold postcards. For some reason post cards hardly exist in Korea. I’ve never been to cities where they aren’t on every street corner, but here they are almost non existent. We then found a bar and hung around playing pool for a bit. Another great thing about Korea is that you don’t have to pay to play pool in any of the bars,  unfortunately where I live in the little town of Boseong, all the pool tables are pocket-less.

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The next day we made a conscious effort to try and leave earlier, which after going out the night before was a little more difficult. I believe we did, however we probably spent the same amount of time eating, mingling and running back to the rooms forgetting stuff. Our plan for the day was two things, visit the Bukchon Hanok village and Gyeongbukgung. The Bukchon Hanok village is a traditional Korean village, over 600 years old in the heart of Seoul and Gyeongbukgung is the royal palace built in 1395 not far from the Hanok village. Both of them are an odd sight to see, traditional buildings flanked by skyscrapers in the heart of one of the biggest cities in the world.

*An introduction to my friends as I’m sure they’ll appear in more posts and I need to refer to them in this one: 4 are from South Africa (Robynne, Nicara, Andile, Sebastian); 5 are from England (Christian, Tom, May, Alex, Sanchez); 4 are from the US (Me, Melissa, Joey, Logan) and two are from Scotland (Lisa, Ryan).

The Hanok village was interesting to see, but underwhelming. Supposedly it’s 600 years old, but all the house are renovated so they look completely new,  I also feel I can find more authentic ones around my area. However, one of the best parts of the trip happened as we were leaving. Robynne and I had separated from the rest of the group and wandered into an art gallery in one of the houses. We started talking to the artist and he told us to sit down and asked if we were girlfriend and boyfriend. We’re not, so he ripped the paper he had in half and proceeded to draw each of us. I knew the group was going to be wondering where we were, standing around in the sun (it was hot out) and waiting; something I would have been annoyed at had I been on the other end. Eventually they left us, which was fine because we met them at the palace after, well, most of them. By the time we arrived to the palace the group had split yet again. Two polarizing half’s, one by the exit wanting to leave and the other just hanging with no time frame to go.  Later that night when we regrouped, it felt as if I hadn’t seen the others in over a day, even though only 6 hours had passed.

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Our third and final full day in Seoul is when the group fragmented the most. We had planned to divide into two groups to visit the War Museum and the Art museum. Upon waking I discovered that everything was closed, Chuseok was in full effect. Well almost everything, the Bukhan mountain hike was still open. I didn’t want to waste a day shopping plus I had nothing to get, Joey and Robynne felt the same, so the three of us set off. The others separated into two or three smaller shopping groups. Now I haven’t really mentioned it much, but every night in Seoul including the night before we had gone out drinking, the first night was the fireworks festival on the river, the second night we went to some bars and the third night (the night before this) we went clubbing. It definitely wasn’t easy getting up and even less so what we were about to do.

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The hike started calmly enough, thankfully the sun wasn’t out and we even joked about how easy it was; as time progressed we joked less about how easy it was, but whether or not we were going to make it to the top, the inclination grew and the steps became more frequent. Not far from the top, the steps were almost vertically and we were on the verge of collapsing, our shirts were soaked in sweat and our water bottles were empty. Three Empire State Building later we made it….to one of the parts (I don’t actually know how high it was, but we walked up so many steps I didn’t want to walk up any more the rest of the trip). Unfortunately it wasn’t the objective I had in mind, a granite cliff face where you have to pull yourself up by rope. That was even further and we started to go, but with enough persuasion from Joey and Robynne we stopped before getting too far. We would have been hiking back in the dark if we had continued to listen to me. It was only 2 o’clock but it would have required a lot more time to get there and even more to get back. Still, the one we reached provided beautiful views of Seoul and the surrounding valley, it was nice to get out of the city and into nature. It took us between an hour and a half to two hours to go up and about 50 minutes to come down. Afterwards we found our way back to the hostel, joined back up with the group and went out like it was our last night in Seoul, since it was.

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Check out was at 10:30am, we all made it!

Some cool places we ventured to in Seoul:
Arcade bar: A bar with an arcade theme and arcade games

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Bar다 (da): Tucked between clothes stores with only a stairway going up it doesn’t look like anything from the outside, it doesn’t even look open or that it has windows.  It did have windows and was the coolest bar we went to.  Hip, grungy, artistic and alternative is how the interior can best  be described.

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Meerkat cafe: A cafe where you get to play with meerkats! they also had two baby kangaroos, two raccoons, two foxes and various cats

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Paris! at last

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Paris like London was one of those places that I never had a huge desire to visit because other cities interested me more.  Also like London I felt that I needed to see it before I left Europe and again like London I had a friend that I could stay with.  When you have friends in places you have to visit them while you can because you never know what the future will bring.
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I arrived to Paris Friday night and had four full days to explore the city .  On Saturday, my first day in Paris I did a tour of Montmartre in the morning.  Looking back on my trip it was probably one of my favorite areas because it is so different from the rest of Paris and at times it felt as if you were in the country.  For lunch I ate with an old lady who did the same tour as me.  She was traveling around France for her 75th birthday with some family members, but did the tour alone that morning.  When we got to the Sacre Coeur she was nervous and scared about making it back to the Moulin Rogue, so I said I’d walk with her. On the way we got a baguette from the winner of the 2010 and 15 Paris baguette competition, some cheese and strawberries. We found a table outside a bar that wasn’t open yet and sat down to eat.
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After I went to the armory museum and on my way I saw for the first real time the Eiffel tower from the Pont Alexandre III.  The night before I caught a glimpse walking to the metro, but it was only the very top between buildings.  It was so brief and it had this rotating light like a lighthouse I wasn’t even sure it was it.  The armory museum was huge and very in depth, I spent about three hours there.  From there I walked to the Eiffel tower.  Seeing the Eiffel tower in person was surreal.  You see it in so many pictures and films and in pictures it looks big, but it is so much more monumental and beautiful in person.  I immediately feel in love with it.  After encircling it for a bit, I climbed to the top (the 2nd floor),  which is as high as you can go using the stairs.
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After climbing the tower I walked over to the inception bridge
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then to this other spot where I waited for the sun to set so I could take more pictures of the tower.  While there I met a Korean girl and talked to her a little about Korea.
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After taking enough pictures to fill a scrapbook I had dinner and then walked to the main spot to the the light show.  I didn’t get back to my friend’s house until 12:30.  I had only been in Paris for one day, but I felt like I had seen the whole city.
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Sunday was the day of unsuccessfulness.  I had a 12:30 tour of Notre Dame and the latin quarter and I planned to do three things beforehand, one was to see 59 Rivoli, the second was to see San Chapelle and the third was to see the covered hallways.  When I woke up I realized I didn’t have the adapter for my camera charger and my battery was down to half.  I didn’t charge it before I came because I brought my charger and and I knew I had the adapter for my phone.  However my phone adapter is only usb and the camera charger needed the prongs.  Roxane (the friend I was staying with) thought her friend who lived in Canada might have one, so I delayed leaving in the morning until Roxane was ready and then we walked over to her friends place only to discover  that she didn’t.  I then went to the covered passageways, but for some reason they were closed.  So I went to 59 Rivoli only to find that it too was closed. On my way to San Chapelle I stopped in an electronic store to see if they had an extra battery, but they didn’t.  They told me about a store that would BHV.
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Finally when I went to San Chapelle and something positive happened.  I didn’t have to pay to get in! because of my Spanish student visa.
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After San Chapelle my day started turning around, but it still wasn’t without its setbacks.  At 12:30 I did the two hour walking tour.  It was very informative and the tour guide Chris was great.  During the tour I asked him if he knew where BHV was and I explained to him my predicament. He said he had a canon charger and if I wanted I could have it, I told him not to worry.  After the tour I went inside Notre Dame.
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After the mass I tried BHV and they didn’t have a battery or an adapter.  They told me another store to try.  As I was leaving I connected to wifi to see what time it closed and to wish my Dad a happy father’s day.  I wasn’t going to check whatsapp, but did by chance.  The tour guide had texted me (I contacted about the tour through text because he didn’t receive my email) asking me if I wanted the canon charge, this time I said yes instead of trying another store.  I met him at his place on the island next to Notre Dame, which was only about 15 minutes from where I was. When I got there he brought out the charger, I looked at it with a sinking feeling because it looked slightly different.  I tried my battery and it didn’t fit, his charger was unfortunately an older one.  Then he came out with a converter! so I was able to charge my battery for 20  minutes, which was enough to keep it going the rest of the trip.  Feeling slightly happier and relieved that my camera wasn’t going to die I went back to 59 Rivoli and this time it was open.  After Rivoli I went to the Lafayette building because I wanted to see the inside, but it was closed so I walked over to the Opera house to check it out and go inside, but there was a show starting later so I couldn’t.  After those two failed attempts I went home.  Overall it was a good day, I got to see more of Paris.
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On Monday I went to the Louvre with a 10:30 entry time, but was able to get in around ten.  I spent four hours there exploring the halls and I enjoyed every minute of it.  My favorite parts were the arts of Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas and Egyptian Antiquities.  The first exhibited sculptural masterpieces from around those regions.  I had never seen art like it, to me they seemed like modern art, but without trying to be.
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 And the Egyptian art was fascinating because of how old it is.  To see hieroglyphics on papyrus and a mummy! was incredible.  It’s kind of funny if you think about it that 2,000 years after whoever is in the mummy was buried he is now on display in a museum for people to see, when at the time he wouldn’t even be able to conceive what the future would be like.
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After the Louvre I walked through the gardens, saw two goats eating grass and then went to the Orangerie museum.  I spent about two hours in the museum with a majority of my time spent in Monet’s oval rooms.
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 When I got out of the museum I was exiting the park and there was a police by the exit checking bags. I thought it was weird, then on the street there were a lot more police grouped together.  I was going to go to the Arc De Triomphe via Champs Elysees next to the petit palace, but it was closed off and there were at least 50 reporters waiting nearby.  It turns out that an hour before someone tried to crash into a police van.  Nobody was hurt except the driver who was killed and I had to walk the long way around.  I was able to get into the Arc for free because of my student visa, but even if you had to pay I would definitely recommend it because it provides beautiful views of the city.
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On Tuesday and my last full day in Paris I went to Versailles in the morning. I arrived at 9:30 and stayed until 4.  I chose the wrong day to wear black because I spent the whole time outside and it was the hottest day yet in Paris.  I toured the palace and was overall disappointed because I expected a lot more, though the hall of mirrors was spectacular as well as the gardens.  I walked the gardens for a bit and then toured the other half.  I saw  the smaller palace and got lost trying to find Hameau de la Reine, Marie-Antoinette’s fake rustic village.  It’s completely out of place and really strange to see, it had a farm with all sorts of animals.
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I then walked back to the other gardens to see the fountains on.  I ended up doubling back many times because I came across ones that were off thinking they were on, it was like a maze. it was extremely hot and they had no water fountains to drink from. I bought one small water bottle for 3€ and couldn’t find it in myself to buy another. I don’t think I sat for more than 2 minutes, the gardens are too big and there was too much to see.  To reward myself I went to best crepe place in Paris according to my tour guide, called Au’ptit’grec
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On Wednesday my flight was at 9 something and I had to be at the bust stop around 3:30, so I spent the morning walking around Paris.
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Paris was incredible, probably one of my favorite cities that I’ve visited.  I would really like to go back to experience the cuisine and night life because when I was there I mainly explored the city.  The day I left was the beginning of a music and dance week which would have been amazing to experience.  It is definitely a city I want to go back to and if money was not an issue a city I could live in. I’d have to learn the language first though.

A Quick Trip to London

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When I first came to Europe three years ago, London was never high on my list and it wasn’t even on it for some time. However with the impending realization that I’ll be leaving Europe at the end of this school year, I began to think that I needed to go, to experience it and to see it. Maybe it goes back to my colonial routes of rejecting the crown, or maybe because I was annoyed that in the English world of Spain everything is British, from the accent and grammar they speak, to the flags and decorations they have around the classroom, or perhaps I was drawn more to different cities like Prague, Budapest and Vienna. Whatever the case was, I have friends in London and I wanted to go while they were still there. A week and a half ago we had a puente/long weekend because of the Féria, so I left for London on Thursday and came back to Jerez on Sunday.

I was really impressed by London, but even more so by the people.  Every interaction I had, whether it was asking for help in the underground, or asking for directions above ground, talking to people on the train, to the staff in a restaurant/bar or to the workers on the ferry, was positive.  It’s left me wondering if everybody in London is that nice or maybe I caught the right people in the right moment of their day.

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It is the people that make up a city, but without buildings and spaces their would be no city, and the buildings and spaces of London really impressed me. It’s a beautiful city that feels as if it’s five cities in one, different buildings juxtapose each other one after the other. Walking along the bank of the Thames you can find the Neo-gothical Big Ben, across the modern London Eye, further along there are various bridges all ranging in different styles from the modern millennium bridge to the iconic gothic revival Tower Bridge; across from the tower bridge on one side of the Thames is the castle of London flanked by skyscrapers; the shard, the walkie-talkie and the gherkin. Each is a unique, individual building that represent the every changing architectural landscape of London.

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I enjoy traveling alone, but having the opportunity to visit friends is also something I enjoy. I stayed with my friend Aoife, who is the best friend of my friend Niamh, who was one of my roommates in Costa Rica and who I spent Christmas with in Ireland three years ago. My other friend is Mike, a friend from Delaware who I did habitat for humanity with spring break sophomore year. He’s living in London and when he took a trip to Andalusia last year he stopped by Jerez and we had lunch together. Aoife was a great host and luckily I was able to combine those two worlds. Friday night Aoife, a friend of hers and me had plans to eat at a steak restaurant, called Flat Iron; 10£ for an amzing steak. It’s the only dish on their menu. It’s located  in the Williamsburg of London, coincidentally right around the block from where Mike lives, so we put our names down and then met with him at his place for about an hour and a half. Once your number is called you have 15 minutes to get there or they give your seat up. It was amazing, one of the best meals in recent memory and it was affordable, cheap for a city like London (but still a lot more than what I’d pay in Jerez). After dinner we met up with Mike and his friends and we went to a divey, but awesome Jazz bar. Hearing something other than live Flamenco Music was nice for a change.

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Saturday we went to Greenwich.  I realized while walking around the Royal Navy College that I had learned about it in one of my architecture classes. While traveling I often stumble upon something that I’ve learned about, not knowing it is where I am and every time a wave of excitement passes over me.  Also in Greenwich is the famous Cutty Sark ship, which up until that point I knew only as a cheap whisky in Spain. I had no idea it was an actual ship.  We also stopped by a cute little craft market with food trucks. For lunch I ate Ethiopian food for the first time. We also went to the oldest pub in Greenwich and one of the oldest in London, the Plume of Feathers. It was established in 1691 and is just outside the touristy part of the city, it’s cozy and friendly, the perfect place to hang out in winter. It was also the first time I saw a pump tap, I don’t know if that’s the proper term, but it was like a lever that the bartender had to pull toward her a few times to fill up the pint. Later that day, Mike and his girlfriend and a friend of Aoife came over to her place and Aoife as the gracious host made a delicious dinner. We hung out and played a board game, ending my time in London.

One thing I was extremely disappointed about was the Natural History Museum. People kept telling me how great it is, how you need to go and even one of the Night at the Museums was filmed there. I expected a lot and it didn’t live up to it. The building is beautiful and when you go inside there’s a glowing orb that you take an escalator through, but that’s where the excitement ends. The rooms were cramped and to me seemed poorly designed, the exhibitions were outdated and have probably been there since the museum opened, all the interactive displays seemed as if they were going to fall apart in need of a new coat of paint, and the displays were dirty and dusty. I remember looking at one of the worlds largest cut diamonds and being amazed at the large smudge over it. The dinosaur skeletons were awesome, but the room they were in didn’t allow you to appreciate them. Maybe I’m just not used to history museums.

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I was however impressed by the Victoria and Albert which is right across from the Natural History museum and the Saatchi Gallery, which, with the exhibitions they had, might be one of the best galleries I’ve ever visited. One of the rooms, about the size of a 5 lane gym swimming pool had projections on each of its walls of  thousands of  YouTube videos of people explaining something simultaneously playing. From afar the wall looked like a bunch of little boxes of color, but as you got closer you can see the people’s faces and when you’re right in front of it you can focus on one individual box or person. At the same time the sound of all those videos together was constantly playing in the background creating a very unique feeling as if you’re in a crowd. In the gallery my favorite pieces were created by Daniel Rozin. He had two interactive works that moved according to your position in front of it. They were really fun and I spent 20 or 30 minutes interacting with them.  If you go, make sure to not confuse the Saatchi & Saatchi with the Saatchi Gallery, they’re two distinct places.

The Weekend of Many First

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Last weekend I did many things for the first time, we had a puente, long weekend and each day I did something new.  Normally if I’m not traveling or trying to save money I end up doing nothing, so this past weekend was a really good one.

My first new experience: Visiting a bodega in Jerez.  Jerez is the birthplace of sherry and over the last two years I have consumed liters of sherry, but until Saturday I have never visited a bodega here.  Bodegas are where they produce and create the wine, which is a little different from the term bodega back home.  Saturday morning at 11am Jamie and I toured the Lustau bodega.  Lustau was founded in 1896 and today it is considered one of the worlds best wineries ranking 7th worldwide in 2012.

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My second experience: Biking the Via Verde.  Vias Verdes are greenway cycling/walking routes located throughout Spain.  In 1993 the Vias Verde plan was introduced to turn more than 6,000km of abandoned railway lines into environmental friendly tourism within rural areas.  So far it has been a success and the route my friend Miriam and I did on Sunday is considered the most beautiful, it was voted the best Greenway in Europe in 2009.  It’s located in the mountains of Cadiz and is a 36.5km path connecting the towns of Puerto Serrano and Olvera.  We only road to about the halfway point at 15km and even if we wanted to we couldn’t have gone further.  About 1km from the halfway point in the middle of a kilometer long tunnel my front tire went flat.  Luckily we weren’t far and only had to walk a short distance, once there I was able to get it repaired.  There’s a bike rental place along with a playground and restaurant there. I was worried it wasn’t going to hold the whole way back (to walk 15km takes about 4 hours), but it did and it even got me to and from school today.

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My third experience: Visiting Setenil. Setenil is a place I have wanted to go to for a long time now, we were suppose to go in December, but a couple of days before it fell through.  Five months later, with no school on Monday I had a second chance! Jose, Jamie, James and I made the trip to the town under rocks.  Setenil is a very small town (pop 3,000) located about an hour and a half from Jerez.  Historically it played an important role as a line of defense for the Muslims region of Granada against the Christian north, its watch tower, dating back to the 12th century is one of many that dot the region.  However, people don’t go to see the watch tower, they go to see the buildings tucked into the rocky cliff face.

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The Forgotten City of Andalucia

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Nestled between the Sierra and olive fields as far as the eye can see is Jaén, the forgotten city of Andalucia. Stated by our blahblahcar driver, “You know you’re in Jaén when the road starts deteriorating” and as if on cue we hit a couple of rough patches that rattled the car. There’s no highway to Jaén, at some point only a two lane local road where you hope to not get stuck behind a truck hauling olives. After all, Jaén is the olive capital of Spain.

To say Jaén is forgotten wouldn’t be completely true, to Spaniards it’s known for having the best olives and the highest quality olive oil. It also has a tapas scene that rivals, if not better than Granada. However you wouldn’t go to Jaén just for the tapas nor for just the olives, which is why when you tell somebody you are going to visit or have visited they ask why? with a confused look on their face. If it wasn’t for my friend Mitch living there, I would have never gone.

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Since I’ve heard so many unflattering things of Jaén my expectations were low. I imagined it as a dull, deteriorating city where it’s inhabitants only ate olives and drank olive oil.  That wasn’t the case, but I was told amongst the locals most conversations seemed to always come back to olives, or they were trying to get you to buy into their cooperative. I cannot attest to the validity of this, however I can say that because of my low expectations, Jaén pleasantly surprised me. The city itself isn’t much to write home about, but it has its moments. There is a long tree lined avenue that would be beautiful in Spring time with a nicely laid tram line running through it. Unfortunately there’s no tram. If there was anything that best exemplifies the Spanish government, it is this. In 2009 the city was given money by Andalucia to install the line, just as it was finished the leading political party in Jaén’s government changed and they were against it, so they sold the tram cars to Australia (I think) and since then it has not been operational.

Situated above the city is the castle of Santa Catalina. Part of the Castle route of Jaén, which contains more Castles per square kilometer than any other place in Europe. Santa Catalina is a beautiful, mostly restored castle that was started in 1492 and has now been partly converted into a hotel.  It provides stunning views of the city and the surrounding countryside.  Also in Jaén is a park with grass! something Jerez lacks, with a view of the cathedral and the surrounding countryside as well, though not quite the same as being at the castle, it’s more accessible and a nice place in the city center to relax.

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Adding to the experience of Jaén and the reason why we went was seeing Mitch. It was also St. Patrick’s day weekend and there are a lot of Irish there. For a smaller city than Jerez, the atmosphere was good. We met his friends and his roommates and got to see the new life he’s made away from Jerez. As sad as it is to have him gone it was good to see him doing well.

Jaén definitely isn’t the most beautiful city of Andalucia, but it has beautiful aspects about it and if you go, you might just be surprised like I was.

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La Isla Bonita

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This past weekend I went to La Palma of the Canary Islands. Going to the Canary Islands is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. Since it’s not the easiest to get to, I’m not sure I would have followed through if it wasn’t for meeting Richie’s cousin Nicole, who’s from there, this past summer. When you know somebody in a place you’d like to visit, it gives you more of an incentive to go; she was also going back the same time I had thought about going (which at the time I didn’t realize it was carnival because last year it was three weeks earlier), so it came together perfectly. Also, Richie’s brother Thomas was going to be on spring break and bought a last minute flight, which then caused Richie and his other brother Andrew to follow suit.  I was going to be spending a few days with one of my best friends and his brothers in Spain, with his cousin in La Palma during Carnival.

La Isla Bonita
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La Palma, called the beautiful island because of…..its beauty is the 2nd smallest island out of the 7 Canary Islands; yet you’d think it was a lot bigger. There’s so much to see I could have easily spent another week there. It has a population of 88,000, with most living along the slope of the extinct volcano; there’s hardly a flat spot to be found. As you can see, the volcano is what shapes the island, it literally is this island. Climatically it stays the same all years round and I wasn’t prepared for the wind or cold at night as I figured it to be like a Caribbean Island. but it wasn’t. It is also ecological diverse, it has various ecosystems:tropical-arid plant life along the lower slopes closer to the water, as you climb higher along the volcano you find the woodland zone with its famous Canary pine trees until eventually those give away leaving only volcanic soil and rock; if you go inward it’s like a rain/cloud forest where everything is green and mossy. Never have I experienced such a change from one to the other so rapidly, it’s like we were traversing through different worlds in a matter of minutes, or as Richie said many times, like we were in King Kong. 
 
Driving around the Island
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Driving around the island in its own right was an experience as much as visiting some of the places; the whole roadway is a scenic route, providing unbelievable views of the rest of the island. To get around, you pretty much follow one road that snakes it’s way endlessly around curves and through tunnels precariously close to cliff faces on inclines that a car with too much weight might struggle to make it up. Single handedly the worst possible place to be is in the back seat of car when you’ve been out all night drinking, which is where I found myself on Tuesday.
Nicole and Marisa
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Without Nicole, Richie’s cousin and Marisa, her mom the experience would have been nothing. Nicole was the best guide, driving us around the island and answering all the questions I had (which were a lot); she picked me up from the airport , she introduced us to her friends and countless others (I’m sure she got tired of it, I would have) and showed us an amazing time at Los Indianos. Marisa was an absolute angel and did everything she could to make us feel welcomed. She made us breakfast, lunch and dinner everyday, she made sure we had everything we needed, she dropped off alcohol when we ran out at night and picked us up in the morning the times we needed to be picked up. I felt as if I was with my own mom and never felt more at home as a guest in somebody else’s house as I did there. We were also invited to have lunch at Nicole’s grandpa’s house where we ate an amazing typical meal of La Palma. Like Nicole and Marisa, her grandpa and his partner are two of the most welcoming people I’ve ever met. As beautiful as the island is, it is their hospitality which made the trip great.
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I saw the most stars I’ve ever seen at night.  On Sunday night we took a break from drinking (the night before we had been out until 5am and the next day we were going to be celebrating los Indianos) and went to Roque de los Muchachos, one of the best places in the world to see stars. The observatory located there is considered one of the three best in the world. Roque de los Muchachos sits at 2426m (7959 ft) above the clouds allowing for an unobstructed viewing of space. However, before getting there you need to take a zig-zagging-continuously-bending road that prevents you from going in any gear higher than two for about an hour or more.  Nicole drove it like a champion in a van of eight people while her two co passengers, Richie and Thomas dozed off.  Since the way up is covered in pine trees until you get toward the top and since I was sitting in the middle, I could only see darkness outside. Until we got to the top and I stepped out. I was surrounded by  a 270° of the night sky and more stars than I have ever seen in my life, thousands of little lights dotting the night sky. It’s as if I was a child again, going down the stairs on Christmas day and seeing for the first time all the presents Santa had brought. I experienced a profound awe that’s almost too difficult to put into words and impossible to capture with any photos. I have never realized such a profound sense of peacefulness and if it weren’t for the almost freezing temperature and wind, I would have asked to be left up there for the night.  Sitting here thinking back on it, my mind can’t recreate or comprehend an accurate portrayal of what it looked like.
(I attempted to take some pictures, however I have not figured out yet how to properly edit them)
Los Indianos
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A celebration only found in La Palma during carnival, Los Indianos celebrates the Spanish who left the island between the 16th and 20th century for the Americas in search for a better life and who then returned with wealth and prosperity. Cuba was one of the main and principal destinations (it was a Spanish colony from 1492-1893).  During the celebration everybody wears white, traditional linen suits or shirts for the men and dresses accompanied with umbrellas for the women. As a compliment to their outfit, some people carry around 19th century suitcases filled with fake money to represent the wealth that was brought back. A mixture of Cuban and Palma/Cuban music is played throughout the day while everybody drinks mojitos. It was the first time in a long time I’ve had a mojito and I probably drank at least 3 liters of them. The strangest part of the whole celebration is the throwing of baby powder. Everybody carries around bottles of baby powder throwing them into the air and onto to people. It’s great for your skin, but bad for your lungs. The day after my skin was the softest it’s ever been.
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Another curious thing about the festival is their guest of honor and main symbol Negra Thomasa, the female black version of Thomas. I’m not sure why and how it came about (since I can’t find anything on it), but it’s the same as how Santa Claus represents Christmas. Mostly guys will paint their face black, wear big red lips and dress up as a girl in 19th century Cuban style clothes and apparently it’s not racist. From what I’m told it’s not racist because there’s no malintent. I’ll leave that to everyone’s own opinion. I couldn’t imagine what it must have been like for the tourist who had no idea about the celebration walking around in a colored t-shirt amongst thousands of people dressed in white throwing baby powder on each other. Someone told me they read in the paper that the number of visitors to the island equaled the total population of the island. I wouldn’t doubt it because the streets were packed. Like many of the Spain’s celebrations, Los Idianos transcends all age groups, you find little children, young children, teenagers, adults and grandparents all out celebrating and enjoying the day. One of the many reasons why I love Spain.
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Los Indianos, one of the most unique celebrations I’ve taken part in and one that I’ll never forget.   An example of what it looks like