Wednesday, 4 April 2012

The day I became an alarm clock!

Chris had arranged to go to the cross up the hill with Kennisha and Heidi at 3pm. Chris decided to sleep a bit before 3pm. I was feeling restless and was just visualizing all the fun stuff we could do at our wedding. I was exploding inside and dying to tell Chris but i didn't want to wake him up. I sat there just staring at Chris and laughing silently at my own jokes.
At 3pm sharp, I decided to be Chris's human alarm clock. "Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep!" this went on for like 1 minute until Chris realized I was the alarm clock and tap me once on my legs to 'snooze'.
"5 minutes snooze", he pleaded.

I waited.

Waited... Still thinking of crazy ideas for our wedding to distract me..

"beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep!"
*tap* "I'm so tired! 5 more minutes please?"

So I waited....

Until Kennisha decided to come into our room 3 minutes later.. I motioned Kennisha to stay silent and started my beeping once again..
This time, my beeping went faster and faster until Kennisha couldn't help it but giggled out loud and Chris woke up!


Friday, 30 March 2012

To market, to market, to buy a fat pig!

Lydia brought us girls to the market on Saturday morning. We set off at 7am and the market was already packed.
We saw many indigenous ladies sitting on the floor, selling their harvests and sometimes they'd have their babies or little toddlers playing around in a homemade wooden box.
Lydia bought a ton of stuffs and we had to leave them at a few owners' stalls for a while so we could buy more. After we were done marketing, Lydia engaged the services of a guy (who was walking around with a string attached to a strap) to carry the basket of heavy groceries. The man strapped up the basket and hooked the strap around his forehead with the basket on his back.
After he left the basket with 2 other (all ours) big basket of groceries, Lydia went to find a driver to send the groceries back home. The driver loaded all our groceries and we climbed onto the back of the truck for our ride back home.

That afternoon, we learned how to make chile rellenos. It was really a lot of work! I don't think i'd follow the exact recipe or methods if I were to do it again. The women in our house told us that we can all get married now that we know how to buy groceries from the market and make chilies! :)

Friday, 23 March 2012

Chichicastenango - famous market in central America

The bus ride to chichi took us slightly over 2 hours. The market was not as big as I imagined (in comparison to bangkok's weekend market).

All 5 of us decided to buy something to wear together. We searched for a long time but couldn't agree on something; either the guys thought the bags we chose were too girly for them or the girls didn't like the idea of carrying a machete around. We finally decided on wearing bracelets instead. On our way to buy Heidi's and Kennisha's hammocks, Heidi spotted some indigenous booties. She wanted to get them and Chris started bargaining with the lady to bring the price down. And when both Chris & Matt said they wouldn't mind wearing them in the house, we decided to get them as our 'house uniform'.
Chris had reminded us to keep our enthusiasm low and to look like we weren't interested in the booties so he could bargain for a better price. So when we walked back a second time to the shop, Chris did his trick by trying to bring the price down for just 1 pair, then when he couldn't bring the price down further, he asked if we can get them cheaper if we bought 5 pairs. But when we couldn't bring the price down even further, we pretended to leave ( Heidi commented in Spanish that we had not much time left and had to go - just so the lady could hear). But right after she said that, she commented in english that she was only saying that to help bargain. (and the lady did understand english!) To top that, when Matt saw that we looked ready to leave, he got worried and exclaims in English," but I really like those shoes!" Ah well... Plan failed. Chris couldn't bring the price further but we got the shoes anyways. I found out later that it was just 1 quetzal that he was trying to negotiate; I wouldn't bother if I was him because it was just USD0.15! Nevertheless, it was a pretty fruitful trip for all of us!

We got back home close to 5pm and 10 minutes into settling in our own rooms, I heard Kennisha shouted," Oh my God, I locked Christina in my cupboard!" Turned out the family cat crept into Kennisha's cupboard in the morning when she left her room to brush her teeth. She then locked her cupboard and left without realizing that Christina was inside! Christina didn't looked like she was in shock or anything when she was 'released' after 10 hours though. As mentioned before, Christina has quite a character and maybe she might be more pissed with us for disrupting her sleep in the cupboard than of us locking her up in there.

A Beachy weekend at Monterrico

We decided to hit the beach on our first weekend because it was Breanna's birthday wish. Chris started rounding up people that he knew so that we could have enough people to get our own private 14 seater bus. Turned out that news spread pretty quickly amongst students and within a few days, all spots were taken up! 3 other students even need to find their own shuttle to monterrico because our bus was full.

Monterrico is famous for its black sand beach. This part of Guatemala is also treated to sensational lightning storms during the rainy season. It was too bad we didn't get to see the lightning while we were there. The waves at Monterrico were powerful and crashed onto the black volcanic sand at odd angles. Many of us did not jump into the ocean because the waves looked scary. Chris fought with the waves a couple of times and was thrashed. He came back finally with his tail between his legs, admitting defeat. (Chris' note: a lesser mortal would have been crushed to death)

I tried to get a tan because I glow in the sun now (I could almost hear Angie saying that to me). But after about 10 minutes, I gave up; it was too hot!! I don't know how Heidi did it. She sunbathed for hours without taking any breaks!

Heidi taught us how to spin poi that night. She's really good! It was beautiful to spin at night because of the bright neon lights.

Oh! We found a scorpion in my room! It was a small scorpion and some guy caught it by trapping it into a bottle. It was fortunate that it was seen on the day we were leaving; I might have had sleepless nights if I knew there might be more! :(

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Our homestay in Antigua

Chris and I got really lucky when we were assigned a homestay right beside our school. Our host mum, Lydia, is super nice. She cooks the most amazing food and even got me eating vegetables! Everyone knows how much I hate greens and will only eat vegetables that my mum cooks.

We get 3 meals everyday except Sundays. But Lydia will sometimes even offer us food on Sundays (Chris' note: in return, we supply free Cuba libres so everyone is happy). She takes care of us like our mother will and is never mad even when we stay up late at night chatting a little too loudly. We felt really bad a few times though because she never told us off.

Our host family has 3 other students in the house; Heidi stays in the room next to ours and Matt is upstairs. Matt's room is the biggest and even has a balcony overlooking the streets. Kennisha's room is upstairs as well and it's the tiniest room! Our room has no windows but because it is always pretty cold during the night, it is not so bad for us. Unless one of us has a stinky fart and we will have to open the door to let it air out.

Our host family has a family cat called Christina. She has the softest coat of fur and is quite a character. You would have thought a cat would run away if you started slapping her hard on her back repeatedly, but somehow Christina really likes it. She even purrs when you do it! Once, Karar spun Christina on the floor and after about 20 or so spins, Christina decided that she didn't like it and ran off, not before hitting her head on the stairs! I guess cats do get dizzy from spinning too. (Chris' note: Karar lives 2 doors down and eats with us every day. He's also part of our study-salsa-fight club).

Christina likes to lounge on Kennisha's luggage bag. We wonder if she likes the texture or maybe she has marked her territory there. If she's not on Kennisha's luggage, she will be sleeping in the glass cabinet in the hall (cum laundry counter ) where Lydia places all her bed sheets.

With our home right beside the school, teachers and students will often pop into our house to buy snacks during break time. Plus, Lydia also runs a laundry business in the house, hence our home is always buzzing with people. The house will only be truly 'quiet' after 7pm and we will have dinner together and practice conversing in Spanish (and S-S-F).

Monday, 19 March 2012

Let us learn some Spanish!

Hello = hola (oh-la)
How are you? = Como estas?
Can I have bread for breakfast please?
Puedo tener pan para desayuno por favor?

Spanish classes started 3 days after we arrived in Antigua. The school put us in a homestay that was right beside our school, which was great because we would never be late for classes or have to wake up extra early.

Chris enrolled us in a 4 hours a day, 5 days a week hell (Chris' note. It wasn't hell for me). Classes would start from 8am to 12noon. The first week of school was really tough for me. There was too much information and little time to digest it. The first half of the class was always slow and unbearable. I'd often lean my head against the wall or hold my head between my hands because the lesson got too difficult or when I had to concentrate really hard to understand what my teacher was saying that I'd often get a headache. The 2nd half of my class would fly past quickly because my teacher would play UNO, UNO stacko, or card games in Spanish with me. (except that one time we played scrabble in Spanish and I got a splitting headache after from thinking too hard - I got 201pts vs her 212pts. I used the dictionary though, but it was still pretty decent scores). (Chris' note: I just sat around and chatted with my teacher while practicing new grammar. Topics ranged from bandits and traveling to our favourite WWE wrestlers and moves. My best studying was done in my sleep. I dream and sleep talk in Spanish).

I would usually spend the afternoon after lunch revising for a couple of hours and then sometimes walk around the town or go for some salsa lessons before heading home for dinner at 6.30pm. After dinner we would chat for a bit before taking out our books again. Chris hardly studied and often would be nerding on his iPhone. It was hardly any motivation, unless I tell myself I wanted to get to his level of fluency so that I can nerd all day on my iPhone too and still be able to converse without thinking. (Chris' note: mostly true but I focus hard in class and in my sleep. Plus, I practice speaking with everyone. And I'm ultra smart.)

By the end of my first week, I was pretty sick of Spanish and would sometimes purposely go to class 5 minutes late. My teacher would give me that look because she knew I stayed just next door to the school.
We took the 2nd week a little easier and went out more in the afternoons. Still, it was too much for us! Chris started sleep talking in Spanish (he claimed that that was his way of practicing spanish!) and I dreamt of Spanish words in my sleep! (Chris' note: I should have read all of this before my earlier comments but I'm too lazy to go back and correct it).

My personal achievement after 2 weeks of classes:
1) I was able to go into a bookstore on my own and buy my stationaries & a notebook.
2) I went to the post office and was able to borrow a pen successfully from the lady behind the counter!

Regardless, I was so happy when Chris suggested us taking the 3rd week off!!

Saturday, 17 March 2012

The cobblestone streets of Antigua

The moment we reached Antigua, Chris literally dragged me to meet all his old friends and the families that he stayed with 6 years ago. If Chris is a puppy, he would be wagging his tail and yelping at me excitedly by the door to get me to hurry up! (Chris' note: woof!)
I loved Antigua the moment I set my eyes on this place. Walking around the cobblestone streets makes me feel like someone's setting up traps for me. Imagine walking on the sidewalk and having to look at the ground (for potholes, half broken tiles that will give way under your foot or uneven cobblestones that will give you a twisted ankle) and all the time you need to look ahead because there are windows with boxed grills protruding out of houses just wide enough to whack your shoulder or head (depending on how tall you are). Then there are all these people squeezing past you in the narrow streets and sometimes you need to step off the walkway into the cobblestone street and concentrate on not tripping as well as swerving oncoming cars, tuk-tuks, motorbikes etc.
This is also the place that Chris had been prepping me up for all the possible mugging scenarios. (how he would give me the cue to run, or to carry some loose change, ready to throw at the bad guy or to give them our money if a gun or knife is involved). Chris is not being overly paranoid; tons of muggings had taken place here. On our 2nd day here, we had heard a couple of stories already. One of our friend was even chased down the streets by a guy with a knife demanding for 100quetzales (about USD12)!
Apart from the fact that Antigua is dangerous, it is a beautiful place surrounded by volcanos. The weather here is pleasant and people really warm and nice. If you had been to Cusco in Peru and loved it there, you will love it here too. I can see why people kept coming back to Antigua or make this place home.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Party of the year in Brazil - The carnivale

One of our timelines we needed to hit was the Carnivale in Rio de Janeiro. All accommodations were either booked up or were at rocket high prices! We were lucky that Chris has friends all over the world and we get to bunk in with another of his nerd friends (Disclaimer: what Chris usually says of his online gaming friends- sorry Fernando & Zdenek, Chris said that, not me!!) (Chris' note: I'm one cool dude. I even have an email from my ex boss saying so)

We arrived on the last weekend, which was the semi finals of the carnivale because we had to wait for our visas in Argentina. We didn't realized the carnivale is actually a competition amongst schools and the winning school bags like millions of dollars! The schools will dance based on a selected song for 1h30m- yes, the same song repeated over and over for 1h30m each school multiply by 8-16 schools per day, which means you hear the same song over and over again for more than 8 hrs! We were glad we didn't get the tickets to go watch it at the arena.

We went out the next day after we arrived at 10am in the morning to check out the street party. People were already drinking or drunk and there were thousands of party-goers in the street. We felt out of place immediately when we saw everyone dressed up for the occasion; young and old! One family was in flint stones costume, another in mickey mouse stuff. I noticed many guys like to cross dressed as girls- they came in dresses, bikinis, and some were even just in adult diapers!
Chris and I really stood out in public ;being Asians and weren't dressed up like them. Almost within half an hour of arriving at the street party, we bought our wigs and try to blend in a little. We partied till about 2.30pm and then walked to a nearby beach (chris' note: Alana, Fernando, and I staggered) where they served the best brazilian BBQ buffet. The waiters came with different cuts of meats (beef, chicken, pork, lamb) and sliced them into your plate. It was so good that we went back a second time on our last day in Brazil.
The street parties (at various different locations) can start as late as 8pm to dawn or from 8am to dusk! It was such a crazy atmosphere; grandmothers dressing up with their grown up children or parents bringing their few months old babies (dressed up too!) and partied through the night.

After the carnivale was officially over and the winner announced, life went back to normal for most people. Some companies gave the day off after the carnival for people to get over their hangover.

We checked out Christ the Redeemer after Carnivale and Chris sprung a surprise "Detour" Amazing Race card on me. I got to choose between paragliding or sky diving! We decided on sky diving as none of us had never done it before (Alana & chris had both done paragliding before).
All thanks to Fernando, he got us a great deal to jump in Retiro, a city 2 hours from Rio. The jumpmaster did a back flip once we jumped out of the plane and then flipped back to free falling facing the ground. It wasn't scary and there weren't any butterflies in our stomachs either. But once the parachute was pulled, we slowed down tremendously and we were able to enjoy the view. Poor Alana didn't really have a chance to enjoy the jump because her harness was choking her after the parachute was pulled.

We headed to Ipanema beach on Alana's last day in Rio. It is true that the girls wear the skimpiest bikinis! Chris commented that my bikini looked big but that was my skimpiest set. I wore that exact same to the pool at the Sheraton Iguazu in Argentina and he said that it was pretty tiny..

Special thanks to Marcela for being so so so nice to us!

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Where´s the beef? Definitely in Argentina!

Chris had wanted to go to Argentina for the longest time 'for the steaks and the wine' - that's what he says.
We managed to stay with Chris's friend, Marcie, who is a superb chef and also baked the most amazing birthday cake for my birthday. Her 3 kids were trying really hard not to ruin the surprise for me but I could already feel their excitement throughout the day and kinda figured out something was going on. Even Casper, their big, white german shepherd, was prancing around the house with anticipation.

Marcie and Gus's house is beautiful. They have a swimming pool at the back of their house where the kids and Chris swam in the afternoons. Sometimes Casper would 'fall' into the pool too but most of the time he just barked excitedly and ran around the pool. I think Casper was either watching over the kids or maybe just guarding against Chris.
We lounged around the house most days because Chris and I took turns falling sick. Alana, Chris's friend whom he met 6 years ago when he went backpacking in central America joined us in Argentina. I think we might have bored her to death if she didn't have to get some work done on her laptop.
We only got out of the house on the last 2-3 days in Buenos Aires and signed up with the Buenos Aires city tour. It was really worth it because we didn't really feel like walking a lot as it was pretty warm and the bus took us to all the places we need to see in buenos aires.

Marcie helped get us cheap tickets to see a tango show and we ended up with prime seats as she is works for the Canadian consulate in argentina. Prime seats meant the first row right next to the stage and it was great except that the dancers were so close to us that many times we kinda need to dodge because we thought they were going to kick us in the face. Once a few drops of perspiration actually sprayed onto our table when the dancers were swirling about like tornados in a trailer park.

Getting our visas to Brazil was a not so pleasant affair. The Brazilian embassy in Buenos Aires is horrible. They offer not much assistance and have a grumpy old man as the info counter cum receptionist. We also found out online ( not from the visit to the embassy) that we had to book an appointment for visa application in buenos aires- which might be only available in the following week as they are always busy!
In the end, we took Marcie's advice (and the risk) to go straight to puerto iguazu (the Argentinian side) and tried to get our visa there. Turned out that they were so much more efficient there and we didn't even need to get an appointment! We got our visa the next day and booked our 17 hour bus ride into brazil in 2 days' time.
Since we had 2 days more to spare and it was also my birthday and valentine's day, Alana got us a great deal and we stayed at the Sheraton hotel (the only hotel inside Iguazu National Park) and the hotel overlooks the Devil's throat (the biggest waterfall in the park). The location couldn't be better as we just had to step out of the hotel compounds and voila!
We took a boat ride into the waterfalls and it was an awesome experience. Imagine the full fury of one of the world's largest waterfalls pouring down on your head. We did not go directly into the falls as it would have marked our death.
No amount of words can describe the beauty of the waterfalls, especially when the sun came out and a rainbow appeared right above the waterfall. We even saw a double rainbow once!

Oh yah, the steaks in Argentina lived up to Chris's expectations. He ordered steaks every time we ate out and left the restaurants looking happy and contented.

A second helping of Turkey

It was much cheaper for us to fly to London from Czech and then get back to Turkey for our flight to Buenos Aires.  So on second time around, we visited the Blue Mosque (so-so) and had a Turkish Bath, as part of one of our Amazing Race tasks.

Unfortunately, it was so hot and humid for the first portion (laying in a sauna), that Jaime started to feel sick and nauseous.  Basically, a case of over-heating.  After laying down just outside and drinking some water, she felt better and we had our ´scrubbing of a lifetime.´ The scrub down was cool - they used super foamy hand mitts.  The massage was also nice, but not long enough and laying on a marble table isn´t the most comfortable of activities.  At the very end, they wrap you in a towel and wipe your head down.  Jaime almost barfed on the guy and the look on her face made him ´wrap things up quicker than he did with me.´

Still, it was a cool experience and I would try it again even though I know Jaime likely won´t.  Afterwards, she accused me of trying to kill her a second time with my tasks (the 1st was making her try ice skating for the first time in Prague).

We bought some apple tea bits / leaves / whatever from the Bazaar, visited our favourite bakery again, Cigdem, and had more great cakes.  Afterwards, while walking down the main tourist area, some kid threw a snowball at me and I looked at him and did a fake rush at him which hopefully scared him enough to not pester people again.  His other few friends laughed along with me and we walked off.  I was hoping they didn´t throw at me or else it was going to get messy.  At least it was better than  our fear of kids throwing stones at us in Jordan.

For our last night´s dinner, we were ripped off at a local restaurant and I berated the guy for cheating us but didn´t demand a partial refund.  I guess he got off lucky too.  There was a cat outside that followed us and literally, wouldn´t let me walk as he was winding through my legs non-stop.  If I wasn´t allergic to cats, I would have brought him home.  As such, I still played with him a while and then washed my hands off at the rip-off restaurant.

On the flip side, the hostel we stayed at, Cheers Hostel, was amazing (both before and this time).  The staff was great, remembered our names, and were super friendly.  Nice rooms, good food, and a friendly dog will greet you there if you ever decide to go to Istanbul.  Highly recommended!

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Harry Potter and the Amazing Race

London didn't make the cut when we were planning for our trip initially. However, it was added in only because it was cheaper to fly to Istanbul from London than from Prague when we were looking through cheap flights via Easyjet. We were quite happy to make this detour as we have always been a huge fan of Harry Potter and talked previously about visiting Platform 9 3/4.

A huge bonus to this stop was that Neal (Fiji) and his wife, Eleanor, lived there and we were able to crash at their pad in central London for several days and do some site seeing.  We also met up with Ashvin (Fiji) and my good friends from the Guatemala days, Steph and Imogen.  As always, it was great to see good friends again and catch up on the past several years.

We sampled the local beverages and food (Beer and Fish and Chips), had a typical Sunday Roast, and cruised around town in Steph's convertible for a couple hour city tour.  We also went nuts on food we probably won't eat for a while (Thai, Japanese, etc) and chilled out to watch all 3 Underworlds since we watched the 4th one the week earlier in Turkey.

Getting around town by Tube was as easy as everyone says and we went everywhere, including the famous Harrod's department store.  They literally DO have everythere there from furniture, food, modern art, chandeliers, etc.  Best of all, they had a Harry Potter store set up temporarily and we hit it on the very last day.  Jaime took pics with the staff there, who were dressed up as Griffondor and Slytherin, we played with mock-wands, and got a free Harry Potter 'maze-game' ala the Goblet of Fire.

All in all, we did a lot in London and it was a great 'last second addition' to our Amazing Race around the world.  Once again, a HUGE thanks to Neal and Eleanor for letting us stay with them and being such great hosts. :)

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Prague: a dream come true!

When I was in my early 20s, I remembered seeing a picture of the snow capped Prague castle and I instantly fell in love with it. I wasn't travel savvy then and hence spent the day googling about Prague & how to get there. At the time, Prague was not easily accessible from Singapore and I buried the thoughts of ever going there.

So when Chris and I were planning for the round the world trip, and I knew we were going Europe ( Italy being the place both of us wanted to see), I casually mentioned to Chris about Prague. With our limited time and the vast number of countries we wanted to go in that region,( mind you, we wanted to go London to see Harry potter's 9 3/4 platform, Spain & Sweden) we had to really pare down our itinerary. But Chris knew it was my dream to see the Prague castle and here we are in beautiful Prague. (i got a sneaky suspicion that he so readily say yes to it because he wanted to meet up with his gaming friends who are in Prague). Chris's note: actually, I have nerd friends all around the world.  I was just being super considerate in fulfilling Jaime's dreams because I'm such a great guy.  Really. :)
Cenda, a beach volleyball friend of ours who came to SG a couple of times, came to Prague to be our tour guide! He lived in Brno but took a 3hr bus ride to be with us for the 4 days!

Cenda introduced us to Medovnik, a very common cake in Prague, which is well known in Russia, Poland, the Ukraine and Croatia. Medovnik is a 10-layer honey cake flavored with cinnamon and nuts. It is not a dry cake but contains just enough cream to give it a little moisture. Its cream, as Cenda kept emphasizing, is hard to make to the right consistency, and when made correctly, the cake will taste heavenly. The Medovnik is unlike any cakes I've eaten before. Its like a cross between Kueh Lapis (thousand layer cake) and carrot cake. I'm going to try baking Medovnik when i am in Canada! (Chris's note:  this stuff is so good that it's almost on the same level as gelato.  Actually, it's just as good if you were to put them in their on dessert categories.  It's awesome.  We purposely ate less at each meal afterwards so we could eat at least 2 medovniks).

It snowed on our first day in Prague and it was really beautiful! We walked around the entire city center but stopped frequently in a bar or cafe for drinks or Medovnik. (too cold to be outside for long!) Our record was a whooping 5 cakes in a day! :p

The food in Prague is yummilicious! It's a great break from all the pizzas and pastas( high carbs) from Italy for me. Of course Chris can still eat 10 pizzas a day if he can get away with it without me sulking. Not forgetting the infamous Czech beer. It's cheaper than water if you order it in a pub!

We had enjoyable evenings with Chris's friends who brought us to various places for local delights! We tried the goulash, which is a soup or stew of meat, potatoes and vegetables seasoned with spices. There is also another type of goulash that looks very much like the beef rendang we have in Singapore, except that it is not spicy and it is mixed with cabbage. I had the pork goulash and it reminded me of 肉丁!

Chris took me to the ice skating rink as it was part of the Amazing Race task that we had to do! We will talk more about the Amazing Race tasks later in in our blog. We spent a cold afternoon skating with Chris's friends (Zdenek and Maga). It was my first attempt at skating but the skating rink has a little metal rod thing for me to use as a balance which proofed really helpful for beginners like me!  (Chris's note:  Jaime only fell once.  Amazing.  We actually went skating twice - the first time was by the fruit market with Zdenek, Maga, Lucas, Barbara, and their super cute daughter, Natalie.  Jaime had a strained back so sat that one out.)

For 4 days, we went out and walked around old town for several hours with frequent stops for food, dessert, and beer to warm up.  As all of their sites had entry fees (even the churches!! WTF?), we mostly stayed outside and passed on the churches, palaces, and art galleries.  Instead, we decided to spend our money on entry to the Torture Museum, which was kind of cool and eerie.  Cenda was a bit queasy, Jaime uneasy, and Chris was expecting more 'innovated' torture devices and thus, a tad disappointed.

Some of the highlights of Prague included:

1) Making a 4-way pact to get back into shape with Zdenek and Maga so we'll be checking on each other frequently and in a couple months, we'll be so buff, you won't recognize us. 

2) A good laugh was when Cenda was getting hit on by a woman in a dessert cafe without knowing it and capped the smooth session by kissing her on the cheeks when she was trying to shake his hand and ask what his name was.  However, she never did call by 9pm that night (or at least a week later) so Chris lost a beer on that wager.

3) Chris and Cenda racing down and up the stairs by the castle in the freezing cold and having the exact same time.  Chris had lung congestion for the next 30 hours, proving that even if you look skinny, you can still be out of shape.
We will definitely miss all the good food and company in Prague!

Milan in a half day

Due to our tight timelines, we only had a half day in Milan.  So we got some pizza, gelato (of course) and checked out the Duomo, which was amazing, even after seeing all the other duomos and sites in Italy.  It is huge.  The plaza outside was filled with people and shady characters who were offering free bird seed, likely in an attempt to distract you with pigeons as they pick your pockets.  But we were too crafty for that and I had to do some tai-chi circle hand moves once a guy grabbed my wrist.  Then I proceeded to fake punch a pigeon on his hand in slow mo in an attempt to show off that I wasn't an easy mark.  At that point, the guy left us alone.

Right beside the Duomo is a huge outdoor covered plaza with super posh shops.  This was the first place I (Chris) came to in Italy 12 years ago and I remember going into the Prada shop in shorts, tshirt, and a huge backpack.  The shop was still there, in its prime location with the other 3 corners taken up by luxury stores like Ferragamo, LV (or something like that) and...... Mc Donalds!

After the Duomo, we had a huge pizza and good spaghetti carbonara at a restaurant before turning in to catch our 4:30am bus to the airport the next morning.  Note:  If you take the bus to the airport, you can buy the tickets at a booth OR right by the bus where they give you 3 for the price of two.  Meaning, you can sell the other ticket and buy more gelato with it.

Cinque terra, Italy

Cinque Terra literally means five lands. Its called 5 lands because of the 5 little picturesque towns that made up Cinque Terra. These five tiny villages – Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore – are cut off by mountains choked with olive groves and dry-stone-walled vineyards, where farmers have eked out a living over the centuries. Cinque Terre is one of Italy’s treasures. Part of its charm is the lack of visible corporate development. Paths, trains and boats connect the villages, and cars cannot reach them from the outside.

The best way to get to Cinque Terra is by train to La Spezia from any city (Rome & Florence being the most accessible), then take another train that comes every 15 minutes and stops at each of the 5 towns.
We stayed at Riomaggiore as it is supposedly the main town where you can buy tickets to the national park. To hike or walk the trails, you will need to pay €3 per person. We took the day package of €10 per pax which includes unlimited train & bus services + the fees for the trails.  Unfortunately, the last 2 towns were damaged by flooding last October, so we couldn't walk there.  Good thing we got our exercise in walking to Veladros after missing the bus.  A straight up the mountain 1 hour hike left us breathless but the view was equally breathtaking.

Riomaggiore is connected to Manarola via the Via del'Amore boardwalk. It is also known as the Lovers' Lane. We saw a lot of padlocks locked on every chains or metal grills along the boardwalk and graffiti on the rock walls with love messages. It is a very lovely walk as it overlooks the Ligurian Sea.

The hike that connects from Manarola to Vernazza to Corniglia was tough. You need to wear proper hiking shoes as the terrain consist of steep climb and plenty of loose rocks. The hike was well worth the muscle aches after because you actually get to walk through all the vineyards, pass by houses of the farmers & get the great view of the entire place from the top of the hills.

If you are ever tired of seeing all the architectural stuff in Italy, Cinque Terra offers a good change of environment. The serenity that envelops you during the hike is priceless.  The only kicker is that in the off season and due to the flooding, there was no food in the last 2 towns.  NONE.  So we had to head back to Manarola for dinner.  Also, NO gelato shops were open in the off season, so that's our main gripe with Cinque Terra in January.

Rome a second time

We were happy to return to Rome after Venice to meet up with Chris's good friend, Colin, who is a pilot enroute to Rome, for 4 days. We bunkered in with him in the Hilton Hotel and all thanks to him, we got to enjoy breakfast & snacks at the lounge everyday! Colin also saved my life when he brought all those cup noodles from Taiwan for me. I was so sick of pastas and pizzas by then. (Chris's note:  I was in Pizza heaven and could easily have done another several weeks of the stuff)

Chris calls me a homing pigeon because I am always able to find back a street that we had been to or recognize the way back to our hostel. I, on the other hand, think that Colin is a walking map. He amazingly led us to places without ever needing to take a peek at the map! Once, we were in quite a bit of a rush to catch the Hilton bus back to the hotel and he led us on an entirely different route and magically transported us to the pick up point in half the time.

We managed to check out the Sistine chapel this time round. There was NO queue at all! Chris said he went 12 years ago and the queue was snake long and would have taken him 4 hours just to get inside, except that he cut queue after an hour in the 40 C heat.

The Sistine Chapel is the best-known site in Vatican City. It is famous for its architecture and its decoration that was frescoed throughout by Renaissance artists including Michelangelo. Central to the ceiling decoration are nine scenes from the Book of Genesis of which the famous 2 pieces are the Creation of Adam (is the best known - the hands of God and Adam almost touching each other) & The Last Judgement. We spent a great deal of time in the Sistine Chapel and I thought I saw Colin, who was still jetlag from his flight, dozing off at one point. I couldn't be sure as his transition lens glasses turned dark.  (Chris's note:  He WAS dozing.  I suggested he put on the shades so people wouldn't know).

A little tip when using the rail service in italy: during low season (winter), you can get 2 tickets for the price of 1 when traveling on Saturdays. do check out the trenitalia website for offers. Sometimes the ticket staffs might forget there is such a deal and will not offer that to you, hence you have to specifically ask for it when you buy at the ticket sales counter.

As per our usual Modus Operandi, we had several gelatos and revisted Blue Ice and a couple of its other outlets.  With so much cheap gelato around, who needed food? 

A-maze-ing Venice

Venice in the winter is a little bit less beautiful than one would imagine.  Nonetheless, it was still breathtaking.  So was the cold.

Navigating in the cold with fog misting in front of your face with every breath was not that fun. Venice is like a maze. Just as you think you're about to reach your destination on the map, you'd often find yourself walking into a wall or heading to a dead end. We weren't surprised to find many tourists lost amongst all those narrow corridors between buildings that looked so alike. Walking around after sunset can make your imagination run wild. I was anticipating someone to jump out behind a wall wearing a 'I know what you did last sumner' mask.  It didn't help when some big haired rasta dude started walking in the same direction as us for a few minutes. (Chris's note:  I saw him and would have whooped him if he made a move on us.  Long hair = disadvantage)

A combination of the cold weather and a gorgeous apartment kept us indoors for the majority of the time. We booked a double room at the L' Imbarcadero and was told that their private rooms are located a few blocks away. Turned out that our double room is actually an apartment with a kitchen, huge hall and 2 balconies on each side of the hallway. There wasn't anyone staying at the other room at the time and hence we had the whole house to ourselves!

Food is VERY expensive in Venice. They charge €2 per person as cover charge for a sit down dinner (unless you order take away!) on top of your regular pasta ( no meat) costing €12 per pax minimum.
It made more economical sense for us to make our own dinner - pasta with pork chop and eggs.

Public toilets are expensive too! €1.50 per visit. I suggest you carry an empty water bottle around to pee in.

We went to Piazza St Marco, a must see in Venice, on our last day. It was so cold that the air turned foggy. There were a million pigeons in the square and those pigeons were bold; Chris held out some crumbs and the pigeons flew up onto his hands and one landed on his shoulder. It looked like one of those bird shows in the bird park!  Still, it was a beautiful city and definitely worth a revisit during warmer times.  Oh, and in case you're wondering, of course we had gelato while walking around in the freezing cold.  A few times.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Naples and Pom Pom Pompeii

Naples is reputed to be the home to some of the best food in Italy.  Unfortunately, we did not find anything truly outstanding.  In fairness to the region, we did not have much time to explore and see the food.  Naples was the landing point for us to go visit Pompeii, an hour or so away.

The area surrounding the main train station in Naples is definitely a bit dodgy, so we didnt go exploring much at night.  The next day, we set out to Pompeii.  Passing by Mount Vesuvius on the way was cool - just imagining the top of that volcano blowing off and the amount of destruction it wreaked is mind boggling.

Pompeii was not what we expected.  We figured to see some of the plaster casts of people who were caught in the ash dump and forever captured in their last dying poses.  Some were apparently shocked and others looked like they were caught in their sleep.  The surprising part is that the ruins of the city were huge and the excavations very extensive.  It must have taken years to clean and restore it to the point it is now.  We easily cleared 5 or 6 hours there.  The first 2.5 hours felt like 30 minutes.  We pleasantly strolled through the ruins (once again, very empty of visitors due to the low season...yay!), had some surprisingly decent pizza, and explored some more with our audio guide.

Several of the sites were closed for restoration but we met a sneaky guide who took us past a fenced area (by peeling it back) and showed us some half cleared ruins and plaster casts.  In some of them, we could still see the bones of the children, men, and women in their last poses.  VERY somber indeed but a highlight of the site and it only cost us a couple of Euros.  We left our sneaky guide with some other people and later saw him again, giving a tour of other areas to tourists.  Enterprising guy, indeed, as most of the guides hang outside and get their groups there only.  Once inside, it can be easy to find lost people and offer them more information.

After a long day of walking through the ruins, we went back to Naples, had dinner and called it a night.

Florence, italy - BEST Gelato and Pizza. Ever

We knew Florence was going to be one of the most beautiful cities on our trip.  What we didnt know was that it was an absolute jackpot for food, gelato, and pizza.  Actually, by food, I mean pizza.  Originally, we meant to stay there only 2 nights and head to Venice, but on day 1, we stumbled into La Tavernetta, right beside the train station and immediately decided to stay longer.  Roberto and Angelo, greeted us with smiles and jokes.  The pizza was amazingly light and delicious and one of the best pizzas I (Chris) have ever tasted.  This is high praise indeed.  I am serious.  We then visited the Duomo (one of the big Three of Italy.  Duomo, Pisa, and Colosseum) and try out 2 gelatos from the top 5 places in the Lonely Planet.

So the next day, we went to have some pizza from La Tavernetta before hitting Pisa. See the other blog post (below) for more details and cool photos.  After Pisa, we took the train back and had more pizza, served to us by Angelos sister, Hui Ming.  By the next day, 36 hours after we found La Tavernetta, we had pizza 5 times (from La Tavernetta) and 6 gelatos as well as a couple of other meals.  Like I said, HEAVEN!

The next day, we woke up early to hit the Galleria di Academmia to see Michelangelos David.  Expecting a huge crowd, we were delighted to face zero line up and only 20 people around the statue.  Amazing carving from a single block of marble and we learned how the artists would make a clay mold, a cast, and then carve the marble piece using special tools.  Afterwards, we went to Oil Shoppe, another amazing recommendation from Lonely Planet.  Despite the map listing it in the wrong place (off by about 2 blocks), it was definitely worth finding for their amazing sandwiches and home made onion rings with homemade sauce.  YUM!!!  Also, on fridays, you get a free dessert and water with a combo.  Not only was it a deal, all of the food was great and the staff was super friendly.  We chatted with the dad of one of the owners for a while and he gave us a tip to go walk up to Piazzo Michelangelo at the top of a hill for a great view of Florence. Tiffany said the sunset there is really good but it was a gloomy grey day, so not much sunset to be seen.

So we took off on a 30 minute walk up the hill, had another gelato (caramel and nocciola.  Good) and saw an amazing view of Florence.  They also had a bronze statue of David there as well but it was green and covered with pigeons.  Afterwards, we walked to Carabe for more gelato (another LP recommendation that we tried the day before.  GREAT Tiramisu gelato) and strolled by the Uffiza where they had a marble replica of David outside.   3 Davids later, full of gelato, and happy with sore feet, we went back to, yep, La Tavernetta for more pizza and called it a night.

Next up - Venice.  We are currently in Venice but do not have a lot to write about since we crashed all day to recover (making time for gelato, of course).  The place we are staying is amazing.  We decided to splurge a bit and stay in the city at a place called L'Imbarcadero that had rave reviews at hostelworld, hostelbookers and all the other online sites.  They kept mentioning good rooms and awesome staff, especially someone named Alex.  He's as good as billed and a great cook.  I'm not just saying that  because he's letting me use his laptop right now (Chris can't type well on iphones, hence his lack of postings).  So far, we love Venice.  The apartment we are in overlooks one of the small canals and is gorgeous!  More later.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa

Pisa itself was very cool.  We took a short train from Florence and upon arrival, did our daily routine of scouting out gelato shops along the way to one of the bigger architechtural 'oopses' of the time.  Along the way, we found Botega Gelato, a shop with fantastic gelato, big scoops, and great flavours.  Naturally, we had one first and then discussed what flavour we would try on our way back.

The leaning tower itself, was very cool.  In our guide book, it says it has a 4cm lean whereas in the past, it was 4m.  They had to correct the tilt by digging underneath it so it would tilt back a bit.  We cannot imagine how bad the lean used to be.  We did all the requisite photos but opted not to climb up the tower for 15 Euro.  Turns out to be a good call as people we met said you only have 30 mins to go up, stay up, and come down since they have a quota on the number of people in at any time.  Also, at the top, there is no discernable tilt.  We hung around for a couple hours, I pushed an annoying kid who was trampling all over Jaimes bag, and we headed back to the train station to Florence....after getting another gelato from Botega.

Italy, Land of Pizza, Gelato and other cool stuff - Rome

Italy started off with a bang.  We reached Rome and had a great meal at a family run restaurant just beside our hostel.  The next morning, we got up very early to head to St. Peters Basilica and the Sistine Chapel.  However, the Vatican museum was closed for Epiphany so we walked back to the St. Peters and were lucky enough to beat the queue and see the Pope!  It was a pretty big affair, with tonnes of security, and a big crowd inside and out.  They had jumbo screens showing the Mass outside in the square.  The only weird part was when the Pope made his entrance, he was carried on a platform (like the ones in C. America in processions) and the crowd was clapping when he passed.  It was like he was a rock star or something.

(note.  I have no idea how to get colons or dashes or apostrophes on this Italian keyboard so pls bear with it). 

Afterwards, we walked around town for several hours, visiting Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, and the main Corso del something which was a road closed off to cars (except busses), with thousands of people walking up and down the italian colour lit streets.  Despite the cold, we had a couple gelatos, with the gem of the night coming from Blue Ice Gelato shop.  The girl there gave me a huge cone with extra gelato.  Enough that Jaime commented on it afterwards.  Good thing we share.

Due to the cold weather and us realizing that 4 or 5 layers was still not enough for Jaime, one of our main missions was to find a proper winter jacket for her.  So half of our time in Rome was site seeing and eating and the other half was finding a coat that was warm, compactable, and fashionable.  Harder than you may think.  Ultimately, after walking up and down and up and down and up the Corso, we got the perfect jacket from Zara at a deal.

Our visit to Rome also included stops at the Colosseum, Palatine, Castle St. Angelo, and numerous gelato shops.  The Colosseum was awesome and something on my list (Chris) ever since coming to Italy 12 years ago and going to see it outside only.  Back then, we got hoodwinked into paying the fake gladiators 5 bucks to take a pic with them.  Thinking there wasn't much inside, we decided not to go in.  Something I hoped to change with this trip.   This time around, we marched straight to the front (no line ups - yay low season) and went in.  The audio guide was crap and said exactly what was on the signs.  Save your 5.5 Euros and just go in without.  OR pay 5 Euros each and get the live guide because ONLY with them, can you go to the wooden platform below and the under-area as well.  That would be worth it.  Absolutely amazing structure and incredible considering all the carnage and barbarianism practiced there at the height of such a creative and artistic period of one of history's greatest cultures.  Nowdays, I guess our equivalent is Jerry Springer or Reality TV.

Our friend, Colin (who we stayed with in Taiwan for a week) will be in Rome next week, so we are going to meet up with him again for round 2 and hit the Sistine Chapel for real this time.  Next up, Naples.

Friday, 13 January 2012

Cold Turkey

Istanbul had such a lively atmosphere and the buzz of the everyday life was electrifying. The food, needless to say, was so delicious!
Their local eateries are something like the 菜贩 stores in Singapore- with rice and dishes. The only dish that is not available is sweet and sour pork which I missed so much. On the subject of missing food back in Singapore, Chris and I were talking about what is the one dish that we will eat forever if we only had one choice for food for the rest of our lives, he said 'pizza' (not surprising there). I cannot live without my Mum's hand-me-down family secret recipe porridge and the BCM (bah chor mee) across my street. I know I said 'one choice', but I'm a girl so I get a free pass and if Chris is not going to let that go, he will have to face a sulky me for the next 1 year.
Anyways, food in Turkey is relatively cheap if you find the right places. ( Chris's note: I had about ten foods picked out that I couldn't live without. When it came down to one, pizza was the obvious choice. Italy is heaven)

We took a tour around for 6 days in Turkey due to time constraint. Cost us a hefty €600 for 2 pax all inclusive (hotel, transfers, buses, entry fees, meals except dinner). It was very organized, considering we had different agencies ran our tour in each city. Some of the places we went to were actually a little hard to get around if we were to travel there on own own. Of course, with 3 overnight buses out of the 6 nights, we wouldn't call it a very comfortable trip.
Cappadocia, our first stop, had such beautiful landscapes that it almost looked unreal. It was like something out from a fantasy novel. Cappadocia actually means "Land of beautiful horses" because in ancient times, there were lots of horses there. The Persians grabbed a bunch from there.

Pamukkale (Cotton land) is really a city with plenty of hot springs. It is called cotton land because of the calcium deposits that accumulated over time as the hot springs cooled down, making it look like snow-capped mountains.

Ephesus is home to the last of the 7 ancient wonders- the temple of Artemis. In actuality, there remains only a single column now - with a stork's nest on top of it. Ephesus also has one of the best Romans excavated ruins and also the only roman public toilet that still has its toilet seats around. Honestly, we had seen so many Roman ancient ruins in the past couple weeks (and especially after Petra's treasury and monastery) it didn't wow us as much when we get to the famous "Library" in Ephesus. It is actually quite impressive but again, was like a Petra-lite.

We were happy to return back to Istanbul to the dessert shop that sold these outrageously yummy cakes. It wasn't even expensive for a palm sized slice of cake. We had 3 cakes in one sitting! If you are planning to go Istanbul and are staying around the Sultanamet area, look for the cake shop called "Cigdem". It is right across where McDonalds is. Anyway, Sultanamet area is where you will want to stay because all the places of interest are there.
We decided to leave Istanbul to go to Italy for 3 weeks before heading back to Istanbul again. Oh, can't wait to get my hands on those cakes (again)!