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!