Monday, 29 October 2007

Returning to Wellington (22nd - 28th October 2007)

Monday, 22nd October 2007: Today's the day I'm leaving Chicago after spending 6 weeks in the States. My travels here have been wonderful and I'll miss the friends I've made along the way - everyone please keep in touch!

Maria, Dilsia and I had lunch and coffee for one more time (I'm not saying 'one last time' because I don't want it to be the last!) before I took off to NZ - I'm still here but miss you girls already!! I know, I know - the 3 Musketeers will be losing 1 Musketeer soon. We can't do coffee together in person but we can always do it via Skype...hehe...and I'll come visit again and you can come visit me too :) Photos taken at lunch in Medici and the girls showing off their bikes (Dilsia's looks tiny next to Maria's):

Went back to Antonio’s apartment after lunch to finish up my packing. My backpack looked as if it would explode anytime - I suspect that it's over 20kgs (how come, since I didn't buy anything during my travels here???). It's going to be a long way back, some 22 hours. It's Monday now and I'll only arrive on Wednesday in NZ!

Urgh, the weather is getting cold and wet. What a coincidence that it's bad weather everytime I had to fly to or from an airport in the States...

At 3pm, Antonio drove me to O'Hare International airport. It was sad to say goodbye - hey, we'll see each other again when you come to Wellington in December so it's just a temporary goodbye :) And thanks for housing me, showing me around, introducing me to new friends etc. – thanks for everything!

Guess how heavy my backpack was? 33 KILOS!!!! What on earth did I pack inside?!

You wouldn't believe this but my flight got delayed till 7.10pm and I didn't leave Chicago till 8pm (was supposed to have left at 6)!!!! I'm so afraid I'll miss my connecting flight. I really don't want to stay in LA for the night...

Somewhere in between time zones: I arrived in LA 15 minutes before my connecting flight took off and I could hear some lady paging me on the PA system to get to the boarding gate!!!! Run, Angel, run!!

Ok, I managed to board my plane and thank god I didn’t have to stay over in LA. Now I can finally breathe normally…

Hey, my Qantas in-flight entertainment control doesn’t work! After the staff tried ‘resetting the system’ (whatever they did) like 5 times in 2 hours and it still didn’t work, they swapped me to another seat. The control works but the seat in front of me was stuck in a reclined position, making the space between my seat and the screen rather cramped. Oh well, better than facing a blank screen for the whole 14-hour flight to Sydney.

Wednesday, 24th October 2007: Arrived in Sydney International Airport at 6am. This is the 4th time I’ve been here in the last 4 months! It’s rather annoying that there isn’t free wireless internet via personal laptops here and I’ve to use the PC at a stand-up kiosk. My flight to Wellington isn’t till 9.15am so I’ve got a couple of hours to kill.

I’m feeling alright, not too jetlagged but just a bit tired and have dry eyes. And feelings of anxiety knowing that I’m getting nearer and nearer to Wellington where I need to get serious and start my life over (again). I can’t describe how I’m feeling – it’s as if I’m going home but home is not there? I don’t know…strange feeling of emptiness…

You must be wondering why I’m going back in Wellington when I had planned to travel till the end of the year before deciding my next place of stay. Well, as I’ve said previously, plans keep changing in my life. During my travels, I found that I still miss having a permanent place where I could return to, a place where I can call my home, where I can relax, be myself. Wellington keeps popping up to mind. Besides, after my stay in the States, I’m strapped for cash and need to find a job fast. Wellington seems to be the easiest place to resettle and find work. I’m not sure how I’ll feel emotionally when I actually arrive in Wellington – will I still feel like ‘running away’ when back? Perhaps once I make NZ home base, I won’t feel so.

Sonja came to pick me up at 4pm from Wellington Airport. It was so nice to see her again! I will be staying in her flat (one of her flatmates is away and her flatmates were ok with me staying in the room) at Mt Cook for the week. Thanks so much for housing me! I hope to be able to find a place of my own before the week ends, otherwise move into Base Backpackers again for awhile until I find a suitable place.

We returned home to drop off my bags and headed out for a walk down the waterfront, making the most of the sunny day. And no doubt I’ve arrived in Wellington because it was so windy! Chicago is the Windy City but I doubt it can beat our Windy Wellington. If only the weather was better in Wellington…we all love the city but just dislike the weather here!

We went to Cuba Kebab for dinner. It was the first time I had falafel kebab and it was nice though I couldn’t finish the whole thing (had to take the other half home). We headed to Chow on Tory Street for a couple of cocktails. It was 2 for 1 house cocktail night (occurs every Wednesday). Woo…my head was spinning after having 2 drinks…must be the jetlag kicking in. I stayed up till 10.30pm and slept like a log till the next morning.

I’ve been having the same weird dreams the past week. I find myself in scenarios (in my dreams) where I could see people wearing nightgowns walking aimlessly down a long corridor that had many closed doors on either side, wondering what’s behind the doors, or me and a few other people peering down the balcony or window of a very tall building, wondering what’s it like to fall. Hmm…

Thursday, 25th October 2007 – Sunday, 28th October 2007: The rest of my week was spent resettling in Wellington, a place both familiar yet unfamiliar to me. It was great to catch up with many of my friends who are here, making me feel very welcomed back. Though I may be starting life over, at least I’ve got friends here and not starting from zero.

I had an appointment with a recruitment agency on Thursday and I was surprised at my typing test result – 87 words per minute! I think on average, one needs to type at least 40 words per minute. Given that I should be jetlagged, I was expecting to do pretty badly in the test. By the way, if you didn’t know, it’s rather common to look for work at a recruitment agency these days. Employers are too busy to spend time recruiting people so are leaving the task to the agency and I have to be registered with the agency to be able to submit an interest for the advertised position.

Made a brief visit to SIM on Friday morning to say hi to my former work colleagues (always a pleasure to see them) and had a cuppa with Kim and Shannon on Friday morning. Hey, we still need to organise a lunch together with Ruth!

Met up with Sonja and Erik later that night for a romantic Italian comedy titled ‘Christmas In Love’ at Paramount. It was one of the movies screened in the 12th Italian Film Festival held in Wellington from October 17th – 31st. I headed to Latinos after for some salsa dancing and caught up with my salsa buddies. Grupo Salson (the band is lead by Wellington Cuban dance teacher, Rafael Ferrer Noel aka Rafa) was playing that night with Auckland Cuban dance teacher Vivio – the Cubans really know how to have fun :P So many familiar faces of friends from the Wellington salsa scene, lots of hugs and kisses, and the many warm welcomes received. Some of my girlfriends weren’t there – they had taken off to Fiji Islands, without me!

The apartment I had a look at on Friday evening was a 1-bedroom unit located on top end of Abel Smith Street. Quite a nice, quiet but not brand new unit with its own bathroom, kitchen and lounge, partially furnished and good enough for a couple to live in. Comes with a car park too. There were so many people scheduled to view the place (including my friend, Vik, and his partner) but guess who was the lucky one who got offered the place? ME! The landlord rang me Saturday morning and told me that I would be able to move in on Thursday if I wanted the place. Why not? It’s near town and I don’t have to look for a place any further - yay! Next is to concentrate on finding myself a job. I’ll have to get a bed and some other stuff for the apartment but those can wait a bit.

Bianca and Paula had a party at Southern Cross Bar and Restaurant on Saturday night – Bianca was celebrating her birthday; Paula was going away for 2 months. It was great to catch up with our friends, most of whom I’ve not seen since I left in July, some even longer than that.

Josiane had a BBQ at her place on Sunday afternoon and had a few close friends over. This is the first BBQ I’ve had since the end of summer in February-March – yum! Helbert’s grilling of rump steak the Brazilian way (no need to marinade the meat, just sprinkled with rock salt) is still the best..hehe…Jo’s got a lovely back garden that’s covered from the wind. Hope she won’t find us BBQ regulars annoying when we turn up every weekend this summer at her place :P

Ramnish came to pick me up to Southern Cross for the year’s final Dine and Dance. I didn’t get many dances that night and it just further confirms that we need more men who can dance. Women in Wellington are getting too aggressive – not surprising to see 2 women walk up to the same man asking for a dance. I miss the salsa scene in the States – there are always more men and once you hit the dance floor, it’s quite hard for you to get off! I didn’t stay very long. Sitting and watching from the sidelines suddenly made me feel alone and teary. Sigh…

Friday, 19 October 2007

Last week in Chicago (15th – 21st October 2007)

Monday, 15th October 2007: Got up early to shower and headed to Navy Pier but there was no hot water!! Reminded me of days when I was living in a student hostel (taking a cold showers in winter...brr!).

Got lost on bus and metro to Navy Pier and after 2 hours going in wrong directions within the city, I FINALLY got there. Yes! Navy Pier was originally opened as a shipping and recreational facility in 1916 and has evolved into a premier family entertainment centre. I walked through the shopping strip and stopped to ride the ferris wheel for USD6. Very nice view from the top. Halloween is just around the corner and this whole place was decorated to the theme. I think it’ll be nicer to visit Navy Pier during the night or weekend when there are more stuff happening - it was pretty quiet around here today. Photos taken at Navy Pier:

I took the free trolley to State Street looking for lunch when Maria texted me to meet up outside the Art Insitute. Caught up with Maria, Dilsia and their German classmate, Mareika for coffee at Intelligentsia Coffee. We make a very good representation of people from different skin colours - dark, olive, fair and Asian!

Hmm, I'm not sure where the blob of water came from, Dilsia...We were sitting outdoors, chatting over our drinks when something 'dropped' into Dilsia's large latte. Suspicions that it could come from the apartment upstairs or a bird flying past (ew!). Better don't drink it anymore!

Antonio and I went back to Las Tablas for dinner tonight - I've been thinking of the place the whole week! Tried Aborrajado (sweet plantain with sliced guava and melted cheese) for appetiser. Ooo, the cooked guava was so good and sweet! Literally melting in my mouth :) I had to have my sangria since I was there and we shared a main meal of Bistec a Caballo (sauteed rib eye steak with two eggs on top, potato and yuca simmered in delicious onion & tomato criolla sauce served with sweet plantain and rice). Please, if you go to Chicago, make sure you go to Las Tablas. I'll be so sad for you if you missed out on such glorious food!

About 9.30pm, we went to watch another festival movie with Laura and her friend Mary. This movie was titled The Age of Innocence (same director as Barbarian Invations). It was a French movie with a satirical swipe at the monotony of modern life. A middle-aged government cog with a sexless marriage and a pair of clueless teenage daughters escapes his humdrum existence through elaborate fantasies about being a triumphant and irresistible artist. Hmm...

Tuesday, 16th October 2007: I didn’t think M&Ms comes in peanut butter flavour! Sonja (my German friend in Wellington) had asked me to buy her some and I thought she was kidding. M&Ms REALLY do come in peanut butter flavour!! And they are very, very yummy :P But I think this is unique to America since I’ve never seen it sold elsewhere. In fact, America seems to be the only place I’ve been so far that has peanut butter in lots of stuff. Apparently, peanut butter is one of America's favorite foods. Found in about 75% of American homes, peanut butter is considered by many to be a staple like bread and milk. A-ha...

Didn’t do much today but stayed home to update my blog. Watched another DVD (yes, I do sound like a movie buff nowadays) tonight – Pulp Fiction. I’ve been meaning to see this old film of Quentin Tarantino just to see the extent of his gruesomeness (I’ve seen Kill Bill and I thought it was pretty gruesome and twisted – not my type of movie). Pulp Fiction’s not so extreme though.

Wednesday, 17th October 2007: Stayed home again to update my blog and had coffee with Dilsia and Maria in the afternoon on 57th Street. Oh, I’ll miss the girls and us hanging out…

Antonio, Paco, Maria and I went out for dinner and salsa dancing tonight. We went to a Spanish tapas bar Cafe Iberico and tried lots of interesting food. Had Canelon de Atun (tuna cannelloni served with a creamy white wine sauce), Champinones a la Plancha (grilled mushrooms with garlic and olive oil), Croquetas de Pollo (chicken and ham puffs served with ali-oli sauce), Gambas as Ajillo (grilled shrimp with olive oil, garlic and wine), Patatas Bravas (spicy potatoes with special tomato sauce) and Calamares a la Plancha (grilled squid with olive oil, garlic and lemon juice) with a pitcher of Red Sangria for the 4 of us. Delicioso (delicious)!! Photo at the restaurant:

This is the first time that Paco and Maria went out dancing salsa socially and Antonio took us all to Buzz Nightclub to shake all the food we ate off. Oh, I danced a lot! One fantastic thing about dancing here in the States is that the men will 'fight' to dance with a women (contrary to Wellington were the women outnumber the men). All you had to do was stand at the edge of the dancefloor and within seconds, someone will ask you for a dance. Downside is if you only want a dance or two, you need to tell your dance partner; otherwise, you practically will not leave the dancefloor. I had a continuous stream of men dancing with me one song after another - phew! As Maria always says, "Too much!".

Thursday, 18th October 2007: The weather seems to have gotten colder and drizzling these days. Stayed home and watch a DVD of a Brazilian movie titled City of God. Quite an interesting movie depicting life in the favelas (a favela is the Brazilian equivalent of a shanty town). I’m kind of happy that I could understand some words spoken though my Portuguese language is no where near conversational level (I had taken some introductory lessons in Portuguese previously).

Gabi had been talking and raving about this hot dog place in Hyde Park and Antonio decided we all check it out tonight. I went with the boys to Nathan’s for hot dogs – I guess all that talk from Gabi really made me think it was going to be something really special but it’s just a Chicago-style hot dog (nothing too big a deal). But it’s always fun to see Gabi because he’s really funny. I’ve never seen him in a suit and tie before (he had a job interview today) and can see that he doesn’t feel comfortable in one either. Hehe…Gabi’s more of the non-serious, casual jeans and shirt kind of guy; the suit make him look older than his age. He’s got a few more interviews lined up in the coming weeks – good luck!

Friday, 19th October 2007: Spent the afternoon at Maria’s place for girlie chit-chat, coffee and flan-making with Dilsia. I’ll need to try the recipe when I have a place of my own. It looks really easy to make (and also very nice to eat hehe…). Photos at Maria's:

With our cooking instructor, Dilsia holding the flan

We're going to eat this...'s so nice...want some?

Antonio and I went to a Mexican restaurant named Cesar’s at Lincoln Park for dinner and met up with friends in Happy Village later. Happy Village was quite busy tonight with people drinking and playing table tennis at the same time.

Saturday, 20th October 2007: Woke up late today and had brunch with Antonio in Medici on 57th Street before heading to his office. Antonio had to do some assignment marking and I just hung out at the office. Paco’s office was a few doors away – couldn’t resist knocking on the door to say hi :P Guess who I found there? Maria!

I believe I mentioned before that most Chicagoans own a bicycle. Antonio bought one recently and suggested that we rode to Navy Pier this afternoon, him on bike and me via the bus. Maria came up with an even better idea – why not take her bicycle? Are you sure, my dear?? Because I’m not! I’ve not ridden a bike for like 12 years and I’m not sure if I could still do so. “You’ll be fine!” said Maria but I’m not so sure…

After 20 minutes of bike lesson from Maria, I think I’ve managed to balance myself on the bike and not swerve into a wall or rubbish bin. It’s slowly coming back to me, I can feel it!

The cycle to Navy Pier was nice – not too hilly and gorgeous views cycling by the lake. It was a sunny day with a bit of breeze and it took about 45 minutes to cycle one-way from Hyde Park to Navy Pier. We made a stop at Navy Pier for ice-cream and a short break before heading back. It was very busy here today, far busier than when I came on Monday. Obviously – it was the weekend! Photo on Maria's bike (and wearing Antonio's bike helmet as I'm more prone to crashing):

At night, Antonio and I went to catch up with Paco and Maria at the university. There was a salsa introductory class and party on. Paco makes me smile and laugh when he dances with Maria – his exaggerates his moves to tease Maria. :) Sheila and Felipe were teaching so we stayed on for the party and danced. Tonight would probably be my last salsa dance in Chicago as I’m leaving on Monday. Sob, sob! We spent the rest of the night downstairs at The Pub for dinner, drinks and chit-chat. Photos of us salsa dancing:

Sunday, 21st October 2007: Started to pack up for flight back to NZ tomorrow. Feeling sad that my holidays are officially coming to an end...

I went to play soccer with the rest of the gang at 3pm at our usual place in Lincoln Park – was nice, sunny day. It was sad to say goodbye to my friends at the end of the game. It has been a great pleasure getting to know you all - please keep in touch! Photos taken today:

The one thing I love about autumn here is the colour of the leaves – shades of red to yellow with some green ones left on the trees. Grassy areas are covered with fallen leaves, making the surrounding peaceful and romantic. Makes me want to put on my coat, scarf and beanie, and cuddle with someone as I walk under the canopy of trees. Hmm…

Dinner tonight was at a Cuban restaurant Café Bolero. Didn't do much the rest of the night except to finish up with my packing and watched a strange Italian movie titled Caro Diario.

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Back in Chicago (8th – 14th October 2007)

Monday, 8th October 2007: Got up at 5am to get ready to go. Merce is just one of a kind – she got up early too to make breakfast for me and sent me to airport. Merce, thank you so much for being such a wonderful host during my stay with you! Both you and Jorge made me felt so welcomed. I will definitely miss you both and please keep in touch. You are always welcomed to my home when you guys come visit, anytime!

Photo of a not-very-nice Chicago day taken from the plane:

Arrived in Chicago at 8.15am. There was a baggage delay and poor Antonio was waiting for me in the car outside till around 9am. He looked so sleepy even after gulping down a mega-sized takeaway coffee. Ops, sorry but thank you for picking me up :) I’m very fortunate to have nice friends like Antonio and Merce!

Was thinking of sleeping but my brain seemed to be fuel with caffeine – tired but want to be on-the-go.

Antonio and I went out to Las Tablas for dinner – it was a Colombian steak house that served the best meat I've had in Chicago to date. We had a couple of empanadas (stuffed pastries with filling of beef, chicken, spinach or cheese inside) for starters. I had a Sangria (fruit punch wine) - hmm, very nice! Antonio and I shared an main meal (hehe, lesson learnt from previous dinners), the Bandeja Paisa (traditional Colombian mountain platter of char-broiled Colombian-style cut rib eye served with fried pork rind, rice, beans, fried egg, corn bread, sweet plantain, and avocado). I love the food – it was so good! Definitely recommended :)

We took a walked around Lincoln Park area – nice quaint shops, lots of variety of food places and people. This is the area where Luca has recently moved to.

We went to see a Spanish movie called Pudor at Landmark's Century Center Cinema. It was one of the many movies screened for the 43 Chicago International Film Festival held from October 4th-17th. The movie was about the most dysfuntional family you can think of (Dad’s dying, Mom’s having an affair, their teenage daughter hates herself and their young son sees ghosts). Interesting movie though had a rather sad ending.

Tuesday, 9th October 2007: Spent the afternoon with Maria shopping for Paco’s birthday present and had lunch at Potbelly Sandwich Works (it has similarities like Subway where you build your own sandwich). It was a nice day and I enjoy hanging out with Maria. Photo of us in the city:

Oh, did I mention to you that Maria is super creative? She made those earrings she wore in the photo. Hey Maria, you should set up a little shop to sell your jewelry pieces! Anyone interested to see Maria's collection, just click on the link to her blog "Maria Pozo".

Laura had invited some friends to a Brazilian party at Ñ bar. I’m not sure if the others enjoyed it because it wasn’t really a party but a live Brazilian band playing wonderful bossa novas. I thoroughly enjoyed myself and would love if there was a band like this that plays at Latinos bar in Wellington (so far there’s only Batucada which plays samba carnival music in Wellington and several salsa bands in town). I wouldn’t mind listening to a band like this every week! And I need to learn how to samba – it was nice to watch a couple dancing slowly together to the beautiful songs and I was unable to fully participate (sob, sob!).

Wednesday, 10th October 2007: Went over to Maria’s at 1.30pm to help her with party plans for Paco’s birthday tomorrow night. I was introduced to her classmate Dilsia from Republic Dominican. Dilsia, like Maria, came to Chicago because their husbands work/study at the university. It was a nice afternoon for ladies to have coffee and chat – I can see the 3 of us hanging out a lot more. We just click!

Tonight was takeaway dinner from Caffe Florian again - it's becoming a regular place to grab dinner these days. Tried the lemon pepper catfish tonight – yum! Didn’t go out tonight and stayed to watch a DVD.

Thursday, 11th October 2007: Stayed at home in the morning and tagged along to IKEA with Antonio later that day. We somehow got lost trying to get to the other IKEA (there are 2 located in Chicago) when we stopped at the gas station on the way there. After probably half an hour going around in circles, we managed to get back on track.

Antonio bought a few more items for his apartment (now he’s got a bookshelf so his stuff won’t have to cover the floor). A quick coffee and shower later, we headed to Maria’s place for Paco’s birthday party. It was a small party of 12. Maria made tortilla de patatas (Spanish potato omelette) and Dilsia made her signature flan (a cream based dessert). Maria also made some gazpacho (a cold Spanish soup) for us to try. Yum - need to ‘steal’ the recipes off the two cooks! Photos at the party:

Friday, 12th October 2007: Stayed home to update my blog and fixed up some IKEA furniture for Antonio. Also watched a movie online titled The Tiger and The Snow. If you enjoyed Life is Beautiful, you will love this movie - similar actors and storyline.

At night, Antonio and I went to visit Jonathan and borrowed his electric drill to finish up the rest of the furniture at home before heading to this Mexican place for dinner. I decided to be brave tonight and tried 2 new dishes - lengua taco (which is tongue taco) and milanesa (breaded meat fillet). Hmm...the lengua didn't taste as bad as I thought but one bite is enough for me...We ended the night watching another online movie with wine and cheese at home.

Saturday, 13th October 2007: Antonio and I went out in the afternoon to shop for a birthday present for his friend Hellen (also an Uruguayan). Hellen threw a small birthday party at her place in Irving Park and she made lots of food for the guests – sangria, caviar, dulce de leche (milk candy) etc. A nice night socialising with new people (and promoting NZ to them!).

Sunday, 14th October 2007: Stayed home to apply for more jobs and I have to admit, it is starting to stress me out. Am I not getting shortlisted because I'm out of the country??

Football was cancelled today due to bad weather. Antonio and I had a quick dinner at Aladdin Eatery before heading back to Century Center Cinema for another festival movie. The one we watched tonight was an Italian movie titled One Hundred Nails. Strange movie about a modern day Jesus Christ-like person...

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

New York, New York! (3rd – 7th October 2007)

Wednesday, 3rd October 2007: Was up at 6am to check out and walked to the bus stop to catch my ride to New York. I bought my ticket with Apexbus which was located in what looked like a dodgy Chinese/Asian neighbourhood basement shop. Should I have flown to NY instead?? I wonder…Photos this morning taken before rush hour in DC:

The bus left around 8am non-stop to NY. It was actually comfortable, more so than the buses I took in Perth and Malaysia. I guess having the footrest nearer helps. Would give you the green light if you plan to travel by bus to NY with this company. Another photo taken during my ride somewhere between DC and NY:

4.5 hours later, I arrived in Chinatown, New York. Antonio had previously given me contact details of one of his close friends from university, Mercedes, who lives in NY, and I’ve been in touch with her last week (she’ll be my host during my stay at her apartment). I'm excited to meet her in person – she sounded lovely in her emails and on the phone :) She even had her fiancé, Jorge, come pick me up in Chinatown! And he’s a real gentleman, I must say. You don’t get many guys who walk over to the passenger side and open the door for you these days...hehe...Jorge was so nice and shouted me lunch at Metro Diner (a typical American diner that serves pancakes, waffles, burgers and unlimited amounts of coffee like those you see in movies - I had pancakes and boy was I so full as the serving was massive!!) nearby Merce’s place (Merce is short for Mercedes) before dropping me off at Merce’s place and gave me his keys so I could go out if I wished to. Aw, thanks guys - I already feel very at home and welcomed :)

New York City is the most populous city in the United States, with its metropolitan area ranking among the largest urban areas in the world. For more than a century, it has been one of the world's major centres of commerce and finance. It is also known for its global influences in media, politics, education, entertainment, fashion and arts. This is the city which I'll be spending the rest of the week in - I have only ever dreamed of coming here and I can't believe I am ACTUALLY here!

Merce lives in a lovely basement apartment in Harlem. Harlem is a neighborhood in the New York City borough of Manhattan, long known as a major African-American cultural and business centre but also crime and poverty though it is going through a social and economic renaissance. First impressions made me think Harlem is poor, messy, dirty and unsafe – there were people just hanging out or sleeping on the streets! But the brownstone (brown Triassic sandstone which was once a popular building material) buildings here is beautiful and makes Harlem very unique in architecture. And I feel pretty unique being in the neighbourhood too because I stand out in the crowd!

Dropped off my bags and had a quick freshen up before leaving home at 2.30pm and headed to the New York Visitor Centre in Times Square via the subway. Wow, and I thought it was confusing enough figuring out the subway lines in DC – the one in NY was even more confusing with the different numbers and colours for the different routes. Headache!

Times Square is a major intersection in Manhattan at the junction of Broadway and Seventh Avenue and stretching from West 42nd to West 47th Streets. Times Square has achieved the status of an iconic world landmark and has become a symbol of its city, principally defined by its animated, digital advertisements.

OH MY GOD! OH MY GOD! Did I just land myself in a busy Asian city like Tokyo or something???! There were SO MANY PEOPLE in Times Square!!! I was bumped and ushered among the crowd as I walked along the streets and looking up at all the huge billboards – full of colour, lights and sound. And tourists everywhere! So this is what Times Square is all about...WOW.

Went to the visitor information centre on 810 Seventh Avenue, between 52nd & 53rd Streets and took lots of brochures. Lots of homework to do when I get home tonight to plan my itinerary for the next few days. Oh, by the way, here in New York, to get to a certain location, you need to mention if it's Uptown or Downtown and what cross streets it is on.

I need to pee…why aren’t there any public toilets around here?? Thought I could find one in M&M's World. Not one to be seen in the shop but it was a cool shop - heaven for chocolate lovers :P Photos taken this afternoon:

Ah, finally found a toilet at the Times Square Information Center. Phew, what a relief! Now I can concentrate on looking for something to do around Times Square. Hmm, I remember seeing Madame Tussauds on one of the streets I passed earlier. Where was it....

Walked around Times Square in search of the wax museum and saw Ripley's Believe It or Not located next door so decided to visit it first. It is a franchise which deals in bizarre events and items so strange and unusual that readers might question the claims. Costed me USD22.70 to marvel at the hundreds of weird and unusual artifacts displayed in over 20 galleries spanning 2 floors. It would be heaps of fun for the whole family - you've got to check it out when you visit NY! Photos at Ripley's:

Hopped along next door to Madame Tussauds New York. This is a must-see if you happen to visit a country that has a Madame Tussauds wax museum. Imagine standing side-by-side with A-list celebrities, world leaders, politicians and icons (though sorry to say, not all the wax figures resemble the actual famous people - some just look 'fake'). Costed me about USD23 for this visit. Photos at Madame Tussauds:

Headed back to Harlem at 6.30pm. Okay, I think this is a really bad time to catch the subway because it was packed like sardines in a can. And just because I didn’t want to push in (hey, I’m very nice, you know) meant that I had to wait for the next train. Sheesh!

Finally met Merce in person and she’s lovelier than what I imagined she would be (like a big sister). We stayed home for pasta dinner that she cooked for us and chatted lots. Good food and company, what else could I ask for? :) I do feel bad that I’m invading in her life for the week – sleeping on her couch and poor Jorge can’t visit her as he pleases since I’ve got his set of keys. Sorry!

Thursday, 4th October 2007: I left home at 9.15am to Times Square Information Center to buy a New York Pass. Spent a few hours last night going through the brochures looking at places of interest in NY and worked out that it would save me money if I had the pass rather than pay as I go. The pass allows admission to over 40 of NY's top attractions and museums for a low price. I bought the 3-day pass for USD120 and worked out that if I went to at least 3 of the 40-something places listed in the book, that’s enough to cover the cost of my 3-day pass. Oh yeah, entrance fees are not cheap around here...

I think it’s the city hectic lifestyle here that makes New Yorkers somewhat edgy. The lady at the information centre counter spoke to me as if I didn’t understand English, repeating the same sentence louder each time I ask for further clarification. And she still didn’t answer my question in the end – I give up!

Headed towards the Rockefeller Center next to check out the Top of the Rock on 30 Rockefeller Center. The Rockefeller Center is a complex of 19 commercial buildings located in the centre of Midtown Manhattan. The centrepiece of Rockefeller Center is the 70-floor, 266 metre GE Building (also known as "30 Rock") where their newly renovated observation deck (Top of the Rock) is located. Costed me USD16.80 to visit the place (unfortunately not covered in my pass). The panels of fully transparent safety glass allows completely unobstructed, open-air views of the entire city from 70 stories, including Central Park, the Chrysler Building, the Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty. Woah...feeling a bit giddy standing near the safety glass and looking down...On the 70th floor, reached by both stairs and elevator, there is a 20-foot wide viewing area, allowing visitors a unique 360-degree panoramic view of New York City. It was a little foggy today at the top. Photos taken this morning:

Hmm, what else could I do around here? Was casually walking by and found Radio City Music Hall. Decided to go for the Radio City Stage Door Tour at 12 o'clock - that leaves me a gap hour to walk around this side of Manhattan. Cool! Popped my head into St Patrick's Cathedral on 5th Avenue just opposite the Rockefeller Center, the largest decorated Neo-Gothic-style Catholic cathedral in North America. It was kind of odd to have a cathedral in the middle of an urban area where everyone seems to be a walking fashion statement. I suddenly felt rather under dressed for New York!

At 12pm, I headed back for the Radio City Stage Door Tour, an interesting one-hour walking excursion behind the scenes of Radio City Music Hall, located in the heart of Rockefeller Center. The hall has a beautiful art-deco interior and masterfully restored to the original 1932 grandeur. This is also where lavish theatrical productions, concerts and award shows are performed, including performances by the world-famous Rockettes, the most celebrated women's precision dance company. Photos taken at Radio City Music Hall:

I'm so tired from all the walking! Stopped by some food place in town and had sushi for lunch then continued walking to the Empire State Building. You know, NY is very fast-paced (yep, I could actually feel it even as a tourist) and people seemed to always be in a hurry. They are edgy and sorry to say, rude even, and in effect makes me behave like them too - sheesh!

After a long series of security checks some 30 minutes later, I finally got into the Empire State Building. The Empire State Building is a 102-storey art deco skyscraper in New York City and stood as the world's tallest building for more than forty years until the completed construction of the World Trade Center's North Tower in 1972. Following the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001, the Empire State Building became for the second time, the tallest building in New York City. After the 9/11 incident, most places of visit I've been in the US required stringent checks before you can enter. A real pain in the butt but I guess safety comes first.

I started off with the NY skyride at the Empire State Building on the 2nd floor. It is New York’s only aerial virtual tour simulator filled with adventure of movie, motion and sights. To be honest, unless you have time and money to spare, don't bother. I was fortunate that it was included in my pass but wouldn't suggest it. Yeah, it was fun for a bit getting tossed around in your seat but still not worth the money (not interesting or exciting to me).

After the skyride, I did a quick trip up to the Empire State Building Observatory located on the 86th floor. It is 320 metres high and you get a panaromic view of New York City from the observation deck. Too many people to squeeze past to get some photos or use the viewing telescope. It was still quite foggy though. Could have paid extra to go up to the 102nd floor but couldn't be bothered with the long queues.

Gee, I don't get the construction of toilet cubicles in the States - they are cramp and small and to make matters worse, the doors open inwards i.e. into the cubicle. How very annoying...

Opsie, late for my meeting with Erik! Erik and I had agreed to meet up in NY to visit the Museum of Sex (Mosex) after we missed each other at the Washington National Cathedral. The poor guy had been waiting for me for 10 minutes - sorry, got stuck at the Empire State Building!

I have to say, the museum wasn't what I had expected it to be - I had thought there would be exhibits that one could touch and hold (maybe even try - ha!) but mostly only for one to see. You would have to have quite an open mind to explore the world of kink, fetish and fantasy - there are people out there who use whips, balloons, masks, saddles etc to 'spice up' their sex lives! And for those who don't have a partner but still want to the sexual experience at the convenience of your own home, consider getting yourself tools like a life-sized doll made to your liking and feels almost like the real thing (I had touched the 'fake' vagina on display, ok?). Personally, I would like to get a copy of that DVD they had playing in the museum. It was about 45 minutes of unadulterated and uncensored instructional sex video clips of normal day couples having sex in all sorts of positions and ways of penetration. OH MY GOD. That's some serious education you don't get anywhere, ever! You had better go with your partner so you can try the stuff out after your museum visit...hehe...Photos from the rest of the afternoon:

It was fun visiting the museum with Erik and discussing the exhibits openly. Haha, I wouldn't suggest to anyone to use this place for a first date - a bit too bold a move. We said our goodbyes here, agreeing to keep in touch. It was a pleasure to meet you, Erik, and I look forward to visit you in Paris or you visiting me in NZ in the near future!

Headed home around 5.30pm and had McDonald’s for dinner – oh, why do I always do this? Urge to eat it but always feel yuck after I had it. Urgh...The rest of the night was spent planning my itinerary for tomorrow and swapping stories with Merce about our day.

Friday, 5th October 2007: Woke up around 7.30am today to get ready for my day out. Merce was up as well and made us Colombian scrambled eggs on toast – yum! She's so nice :)

Left at 8.30am and took the subway from East Harlem towards Battery Park where the ferry leaves for Liberty Island (that's where the Statue of Liberty is). East Harlem is known for its large Latino community home to Spanish Harlem, also known as El Barrio, a neighbourhood in this area. My walk to the subway was an eye-opener - there were people hanging out and homeless people sleeping on the streets. Dirty and not appealing. I wouldn't recommend you using this subway at night. My suspicions is that it is quite a rough neighbourhood given many NYPD roaming the streets during the day...

Battery Park is a public park located at the Battery, the southern tip of the Manhattan. Along the waterfront, ferries depart for the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. I was walking towards the waterfront and taking photos in the park when I was stopped by a busker donned up like the Statue of Liberty - he gestured me to come close for a photo (the 'statue' did not speak, just mimed). Ah, the trickster! After the photo was taken, he whispered in my ear that I now owed him 5 bucks!! Ok, you can say it was my own fault if there was a notice stating the price or something but there was NOTHING written ANYWHERE! Sheesh!! I couldn't believe this is how one does business...felt somewhat cheated...

Went to Castle Clinton to collect a Statue of Liberty National Monument Pass (it's free but limited numbers daily) but there were no more passes for the day (and it's not even 10am yet). Oh well, since I'm already here, might as well take a ride to the island and back. It was another foggy day today with some drizzle but thankfully is was a smooth ferry ride. Did I mention to you that I had to go through a security check before getting on the ferry? Oh yeah, another long queue of visitors ushered through the checkpoints...

The first stop was at Liberty Island, a small uninhabited island best known as the location of the Statue of Liberty. The statue is of a robed female figure wearing a crown with seven spiked rays representing a nimbus (halo), who is holding a stone tablet close to her body in her left hand and a flaming torch high in her right hand. Statue of Liberty is one of the most recognizable icons of the United States, and more generally, represents liberty and escape from oppression.

As visitors were disembarking the ferry, I had a chat with one of the ferry crew to find out if it was worth me getting off the ferry since I have no pass into the Statue of Liberty. "How big is your party?" he asked me. Party?? I guessed he meant people in my group. Told him it was just me and he said to wait for him (he went somewhere). About a minute later, he turned up with a pass for me!! Oh, thank you! Now I can go inside the statue - yay!

What the??! Another long queue to get inside with more security checks, this time including a bomb check. I had to stand in a machine that was like a huge air-blowing cubicle (apparently that was a bomb detector). Exciting...No backpacks, food or liquids permitted in the monument. After 45 minutes standing in line, I FINALLY was inside. Took the elevator to the 10th floor pedestal and climb 24 steps to reach the observation deck, which was just the bottom part of the statue i.e. under the skirt. Hmm...nothing impressive, really. Just spent about 10 minutes there and left to catch the connecting ferry to Ellis Island.

Ellis Island was at one time the main entry facility for immigrants entering the United States. There is a museum on this island that you can visit which I didn't - I just stayed on the ferry and returned to Battery Park (I think the ferry arrives every 10-15 minutes at each stop). Photos taken this morning:

About 12.45pm, I arrived back at the waterfront and made my way to Wall Street. Ah, the sky is clearing up - fabulous! Wall Street is a thoroughfare in lower Manhattan island that runs east from Broadway downhill to South Street on the East River, through the historical centre of the Financial District. I took a walk around the street where the famous New York Stock Exchange (the largest stock exchange in the world) is located and back up before heading to the World Trade Center site.
Wow...there was just NOTHING in the World Trade Center site but rubbles and lots of construction going on. I can imagine the devastation of New Yorkers on September 11th, 2001 and how much damage had been done. Felt a pang of sadness just standing there looking at the empty site. In need of a hug right now...

Next on my list of places to go to today was the Brooklyn Bridge. It is one of the oldest suspension bridges in the United States and stretches 5,989 feet over the East River connecting the New York City boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn. The bridge has a wide pedestrian walkway open to walkers and cyclists in the centre of the bridge and higher than the automobile lanes. I only walked half of it (my legs were sore from all the walking earlier today - should have gotten myself a bike!). Photos taken from Wall Street to Brooklyn Bridge:

I've a feeling that my day of walking has not yet come to an end...Took the subway and went to Chinatown – always very busy and lots of people. Chinatown has the largest Chinese community in the Western hemisphere with smaller clusters of Vietnamese, Thai, Cambodian and Hispanic residents living in this neighbourhood. Along these narrow, crooked streets are fish markets, shops selling everything from jade carvings to birds’ nests and hundreds of eateries.

I continued walking on and found Little Italy, a neighbourhood in Manhattan once known for its large population of Italians. This is the part of town you want to be when you crave a good cappuccino - it is crowded with al fresco restaurants and cafes. A bit further west lies SoHo, where galleries show the works of avant-garde artists, chic boutiques sell cutting-edge fashions and busy streets flaunting open-air cafes, buzzing bistros, bars and an aura of hipness. The name is a blend of "South" and "Houston", from "south of Houston Street", and has no relation to the district called Soho in London, England. I could feel and see the obvious change in neighbourhoods as I walked past these 3 places. Very interesting!

Around 4pm, I went near Astor Place to get a ticket to the show "STOMP" for Sunday. Walked down St Mark's Place looking for a subway station to get to Grand Central but instead found a street that hosts alternative retailers (think tattooist, piercings, punk clothing). This street also has several authentic Japanese restaurants.

Grand Central Terminal it is the largest train station in the world by number of platforms - 44 with 67 tracks along them. They are on two levels, both below ground, with 41 tracks on the upper level and 26 on the lower. Being there was like a flashback of my first day at Times Square - too many people! Oh, but it was very cool to be in this famous movie location and just take in the sound and sight of this busy place :)

Started to head back home around 5.30pm to meet up with Jorge and Merce for dinner. Merce shouted us to dinner at a Carribean restaurant nearby her place called Native. Hmm, the food there was yum! Tagged along with Jorge and Merce to do some grocery shopping (Jorge's making pancakes for breakfast tomorrow) and stopped by Settepani Bakery on the way back for coffee and dessert. Ooo, if you come to Harlem, do drop by this shop. They make lovely tiramisu and chocolate cakes to die for and the staff are very friendly too! Thanks Merce for the wonderful treat! Photos taken the rest of the afternoon:

The 3 of us decided to check out this salsa place called Columbus 72 later at night. Photos of us before we went out:

There was a band playing salsa music when we arrived. Interestingly, this place seems to cater for the older crowd i.e. not many young 20-somethings around. I had fun dancing salsa, meringue and bachata with the older men who treated me like a lady :P Even had a dance with Jorge too (though I've a bad habit of trying to lead him - Jorge doesn't know much salsa yet). Hehe...Oh, and I danced meringue with this Chinese man who would dip me as we grooved and that caught a lot of stares and a small audience around us! He gave me his business card asking me to keep in touch so he can come visit me in NZ. Right...that was random...

Saturday, 6th October 2007: Thought I should show you my lovely bed:

Don't be put off by it - that's one very comfortable couch to sleep on!

Jorge and Merce convinced me to join them for breakfast before heading out (eee, me playing gooseberry...). Jorge made us all pancakes this morning - yum, I love pancakes on a weekend! Hey Merce, can I clone myself another Jorge? Or perhaps tell me where I could pick up another man like him? He's so sweet, kind-hearted and a total romantic :) They make such a lovely pair - I'm so glad they found each other!

Left home around 9.15am and headed to Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, the largest cathedral in the world. It is the seat of the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New York. I did a free self-tour of the cathedral and it was huge (and I only did part of it as some renovations were going on)! The Statue of Liberty would fit comfortably under its central dome!! Photos taken at the cathedral:

Next was a brief stop at Columbus Circle, a major landmark and point of attraction in Manhattan to take some photos and then was off to The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). The museum is a preeminent art museum located in Midtown Manhattan on 53rd Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. It has been singularly important in developing and collecting modernist art, and is often identified as the most influential museum of modern art in the world. It normally cost USD20 to visit the place but I got in with my NY pass at no additional cost. Spent about 45 minutes walking inside the museum and taking photos of a few art pieces of interest (I still find it odd that you are allowed to take photographs in museums here in the States). I don't understand much of contemporary art but I do like Pablo Picasso's work :)

Immersing myself in more modern art, I went in search of Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, another modern art museum located on the Upper East Side in New York city. Ah-ha, finally a museum that DOES NOT allow me to take photos! It has a rotunda gallery that spirals up 6 floors. Paintings are displayed along the walls of the spiral and also in viewing rooms found at stages along the way. I think it would be quite fun if one could rollerblade down the rotunda from the 6th floor (don't thinkthe museum security guards would be too happy about that).

Around 2pm, I walked from the museum across the street into Central Park. Central Park is a large public, urban park in Manhattan and is the most visited city park in the United States where many movies and television shows are filmed. There were lots of people running around the reservoir as I walked on the grounds of the huge park. Whoever decided to create/build this park is a genius - this is the only place I've been in New York so far that I felt peace and tranquility, as if everything has slowed down and people are more relaxed. I believe this is where New Yorkers come to chill out, having picnics or sporting/family events, some even having a tan in swimming trunks and bikinis at the Great Lawn! Photos taken today:

The last museum to visit on my list was The Metropolitan Museum of Arts (aka 'The Met'), one of the world's largest and most important art museums. The main building is located on the eastern edge of Central Park along what is known as Museum Mile (the Guggenheim was also on this street). The Met's permanent collection contains more than two million works of art, divided into nineteen curatorial departments including The American Wing, Arms and Armor, Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, Egyptian Art, European Decorative Arts, European Scuplture, Greek and Roman Art, Medieval Art, Modern and Contemporary Art, Roof Garden, Ancient Near Eastern Art, Cypriot Art, European Paintings, Musical Instruments, South and Southeast Asian Art.

I didn't quite understand the admission fee - I was told that the recommended payment for adults is USD20. Does that mean I can opt to not pay??? By the way, admission to the Met is not included in the NY Pass.

The museum was very huge with lots of visitors. You would be able to spend a full day in the museum (and you would be lucky if you manage to go to all the curatorial departments within your day). I had to be selective and picked a few departments of interest - by now, you should realise that I like Greek, Roman and Eyptian art...hehe...After 1 hour dragging my feet around the first floor and taking photos, I had to take a break from all the walking. Stopped for a coffee and corn muffin at Balcony Cafe and continued on to the 2nd floor. Photos taken at The Met:

I left The Met at 5pm and hurried to catch a tram ride to Roosevelt Island at the tram station on 59th Street and 2nd Avenue. The Roosevelt Island Tramway is an aerial tramway in New York City that spans the East River and connects Roosevelt Island to Manhattan. Each cabin has a capacity of up to 125 people and makes approximately 115 trips per day. It was a 4-minute trip at 16kmph, rising to 250 feet above the East River. Quite interesting to be in the tram even though it was packed and very hot inside. Photos taken on my tram ride:

You can take a bus ride around Roosevelt Island if you wish but I had to take off early as I had planned to return to Times Square to check it out during the night. Around 6.15pm, I took the subway to Times Square. Boy was it busier than during the day! And looks different too with the colourful and bright billboards illuminating into the sky. Photos taken tonight:

You know those yellow New York cabs? My god are they insane drivers! I saw a lady put up her hand signalling for a cab and the cab swerved made a U-turn and zipped 3 lanes across on a very busy street!!
Was searching around for an internet cafe (hmm, I don't recall seeing any during my travels in US). Went to Times Square Information Center to find out if there was one located nearby and I was told to find Kinko's (they had some PC with internet access but the queue was too long).

Found a Kinko's sign outside a Fedex shop and I went in to ask if I was at the right place. Apparently Fedex in the States provide not only courier and copying services but internet services too (of course, you'll have to pay for it).

Started heading back to Merce's place by 8pm and just chilled out in the lounge with Jorge and Merce, watching TV and chatting over a cup of tea.

Some interesting facts about New York city you might like to know:
1) Fifth Avenue divides Manhattan into the east side and west side
2) When getting directions, always ask for the cross streets i.e. 810 Seventh Avenue between 52nd and 53rd streets
3) In Manhattan, if you walk 20 blocks north or south, you have walked 1 mile
4) If the number on top of the taxicab is lit, it means the cab is available
5) It is customary to tip 15-20% to waitstaff, bartenders and taxi drivers
6) MetroCards work on both buses and subways, and transfers between the two are free

Sunday, 7th October 2007: Stayed in today to help Merce and Jorge prepare brunch. They were having some friends over this afternoon and made huevos rancheros (translates to "eggs ranch-style", a salsa stew with poached eggs) eaten as it is or with tortilla or bread. Yummy!! I bought them a tiramisu cheesecake from Settepani Bakery on my way back from getting some last minute shopping for them at the nearby grocery store.

Wow, that was a lot of food guys! Met some of Merce's work colleagues who were also South Americans (from Spain and Uruguay). Lovely people :) I wished I could stay longer to chat but had to leave before 2pm for the 'STOMP' show at the Orpheum Theatre on 2nd Ave and 8th St.

The subway didn't stop at Astor Place as it should!!!! I had to run 7 blocks in 10 mins to the theatre and got there just in time for the show. I was huffing and puffing by the time I got to the entrance. Crazy!
The show costed me USD35 and was well worth the money (and my run). STOMP is a unique combination of percussion, movement and visual comedy. Explosive, provocative, sophisticated, sexy, utterly unique and appeals to audiences of all ages. They are an international sensation and I've seen their show on TV several times and leaves me at awe with their musical creativity. The eight-member troupe uses everything but conventional percussion instruments – matchboxes, wooden poles, brooms, garbage cans, Zippo lighters, plastic water containers, plungers, sinks – to fill the stage with magnificent rhythms. Very funny and entertaining. The audience was also included in a few of the rhythms! Go get yourself a ticket to the show - you MUST see what all the noise is about!

2 hours later, I walked back to St Mark's Place, this time stopping to check out Waga African & Ethnic Gift Shop. Bought myself a pair of bronze earrings from the lovely shopkeeper who asked me many questions about life in NZ. He told me that he has never met anyone from NZ before!

I seem to be back tracking a lot today...I returned to Central Park, this time starting from the south side at The Pond. Hmm, too many couples here...probably this area is the 'romantic' side :P I won't be able to cover the whole of Central Park on this visit in NY - have to come back to finish up the other sections! I would have taken a carriage horse ride around the park but had promised to take Jorge and Merce out for dinner tonight as this was my last night in NY. Photos taken today:

The two were still feeling full from brunch by the time I met up with them at home so we decided to skip dinner and went to Union Square for drinks and nibbles instead. Union Square is a popular meeting place, given its central location in Manhattan and its many subway lines. There are many bars and restaurants on the periphery of the square, and the surrounding streets have some of the city's most renowned and expensive restaurants.

We ended up at Coffee Shop New York where I shouted Jorge and Merce drinks and nibbles. Oh, I'm feeling tearful because I'm leaving my wonderful friends tomorrow!

There are lots more you can do and visit in New York. 5 days is too rushed and definitely not enough! I will have to make another trip back here in the near future :)

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Quick tour in Washington DC (1st – 2nd October 2007)

Monday, 1st October 2007: After much contemplation last week, I decided take a short trip out of Chicago to Washington DC and New York and booked my flights online via ATA Airlines. Costed me USD209.80 one-way to Washington DC and returning from New York to Chicago. By the way, you need to pack your own snack on board the plane because you would have to pay for food and drink on the plane (thus I can understand why the cost of the ticket was cheap).

The weather in Chicago today was pretty bad – cold and raining. Hope that it would be a smooth ride though…Antonio sent me to airport at 8am for my 10.16am flight to DC. Washington DC is the capital of the United States. The city was named after George Washington, the first President of the United States. By the way, you can’t say ‘Washington’ as short for ‘Washington DC’ because there is actually a state in US named Washington (apparently famous for great outdoors adventures).

Arrived in DC at the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport at 1.05pm DC time and took the metro to Metro Center. Sure looks cleaner than the Chicago subway :) It costed me USD1.65 one way to Metro Center. Took me awhile to get my head around the ticketing system. In Chicago, it costs the same for every ride. Here in DC, the cost differs depending on the location you wish to go to. I had to refer to the cost chart and put the correct amount of money into the machine for my ticket to my destination.

What a bummer…turned out that the Metro Center was about 5-6 blocks away from where I was staying and boy was it a pain carrying my backpack walking all the way to the backpackers! I had booked my accommodation of 2 nights at Hostelling International American Youth Hostels Washington DC Hostel in an all-female dorm. It was a large room with bunk beds for 10 people and costed me USD62 for the 2 nights. Looked pretty nice and clean to me, just not too sure how I'll be getting any sleep with 9 others in the room (but girls aren't supposed to be rowdy, right??).

My friend Nga from Vietnam came to meet me at the hostel. It was so nice to see her again after over 6 years and she looks the same! I first met Nga on the plane to New Zealand in 2001 – she was seated next to me and we exchanged contacts details and kept in touch. Neither of us expected to meet up again after this long, what more in a country where both of us are foreigners! Just shows how unpredictable and amazing life can be :) I remembered in our last correspondence that she mentioned she had moved to DC with her husband for a few years so sent her a quick email to find out if she was still around. Lucky for me she was!

Oh Nga, you are so sweet! She drew me a map that showed all the key museums to visit near the backpackers so I won’t get lost in the city. Thank you!! She was my city guide for the afternoon and we visited 2 museums, starting with the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History. This museum complex holds more than 126 million specimens, some of which are brand-new and some of which were collected almost 200 years ago during early voyages and explorations of the world. This was also the museum where the movie Night at the Museum was filmed. You should go check out the movie if you haven't - a light comedy for the whole family.

Nga had wanted to bring me to the National Museum of American History but it was closed for renovations so we ended up going to Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. The museum maintains the largest collection of historic air and spacecraft in the world. We didn't get to see all the exhibits as the museum was due to close in half an hour so just breezed through a few of them. There were also a few collections from the National Museum of American History that was moved to the National Air and Space Museum temporarily till renovations complete.

It was a very nice afternoon spent with Nga and I would have loved to take her out for dinner but she had to return home (she lives in Maryland which was quite a distance away from the city centre). We had agreed to meet up again tomorrow evening for a walking tour in the city – I'm not sure what this walking tour is about (Nga only said it was in the evening and it was free from the website she sent me). I'm excited to see what's it all about!

Speaking of walking, my legs are really sore…all the soccer playing on Sunday and walking around town today is making me exhausted. Food, I need FOOD! Photos taken today:

You know, DC feels very different to Chicago. The atmosphere or air here breathes government, seriousness and proper. Didn’t see many people walking the streets after working hours (perhaps it was a Monday). Had a quick dinner at a Japanese restaurant near the backpackers and headed home to rest.

Met 2 other females staying in the same room – one from Scotland and another older Japanese lady. I hope the other ladies don’t snore because 1) I’m a light-sleeper and 2) I have an early start tomorrow (my last day in DC so have to make the most of it). It’s a nice backpackers – clean and tidy. You even have a lockable cabinet in the room for your stuff (it was big enough for me to put my backpack inside).

After my shower, I went to check out the other facilities available in the hostel and bumped into a French guy named Erik in the kitchen and got chatting. We bumped into each other again later that night in the internet area and ended up talking about our itineraries tomorrow and planned to meet up at the Washington National Cathedral at lunchtime. The cathedral wasn’t part of my initial plan but from the photos he showed me from his travel book, it sure looked worth the trip to see it. We swapped contact details just in case one of us got caught up some other place and couldn’t make it to the cathedral. Erik was very nice and even gave me tips on a few other cool places to visit. So glad I met you!

Oh yeah, I bought an online bus ticket one-way from DC to NY for tomorrow. I don’t know why but the idea of travelling with a company that I suspect is run by Chinese makes me a little sceptical (and it only cost USD20).

Tuesday, 2nd October 2007: Got up to start my day at 7am and headed towards McPherson Square train station, stopping by Cosi Café for a muffin and coffee costing me USD5.70. By the way, they make bread on site and the shop smells so yummy!

Joined the rush hour to go to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception at Baltimore. Wow, what a beautiful church! This is one of the world’s largest churches featuring more than 2000 tons of marble and mosaic. There was also a theology school located within the grounds of the majestic Basilica. Photos taken at the Basilica:

Next, I headed to Union Station and walked around till 9.30am so I could buy day pass for USD6.50 – need to travel smart and cheap :) Union Station is the grand ceremonial train station designed to be the entrance to Washington, D.C., when it opened in 1907. It is one of the busiest and best-known places in Washington, D.C., visited by 20 million people each year. Another popular location where movies are filmed (bet you have seen this place on TV before even if you haven't been to DC).

Headed off to The Pentagon from Union Station. The Pentagon is the headquarters of the United States Department of Defense, located in Arlington, Virginia. Was disappointed to find that I wasn’t able to take any photos of the premises so left and headed to Arlington National Cemetery. But of course, Angelica - how could you take photos at such a place? Wishful thinking!

Arlington National Cemetery is the best known of more than 100 national cemeteries in the US, with its green slopes sheltering veterans from every war that has involved the nation. About 24 burials are conducted here every weekday.

All who are remembered here have this in common: service to their country. To each one, no matter what rank or station, whether decorated hero or unknown, belongs a place of honour. Though the majority of thoses buried here have been servicemen, many women who have contributed to the Armed Forces are also interred within these hallowed grounds.

A funeral with full military honours is a dignified and moving occasion. An honour guard accompanies the American flag-draped coffin drawn by matched horses. A band plays solemn marches while muffled drums beat the slow cadence for the procession. Before the remains are lowered, a squad fires 3 rifle volleys and a bugler lows the long notes of “Taps”. Finally the guard folds the flag and presents it to the next of kin.

Call me lazy but I’m not up for walking around the huge cemetery so took the tourmobile with Tourmobile Sightseeing for USD7 – a hop-on and -off entertaining, fun and live narrated tour and only riding tour of Arlington National Cemetery. Tour was about 1 hour – you can hop on and off at 3 stops but it takes about 15 minutes to wait for next pickup. According to the guides, the cemetery is likely to be in full capacity within 40 years given the rate of funerals happening each day. Photos taken at the cemetery:

Ops, time to make a dash to meet Erik at the Washington National Cathedral! Unfortunately he was stuck in a US Capitol tour. It’s ok – we might meet up in New York if our schedules coincide (he leaves for NY on Amtrak this evening; I bus to NY tomorrow morning). Did a bit of shopping and the took a bus to the cathedral. Washington National Cathedral opens its doors to people of all faiths as they have gathered to worship and pray, to mourn the passing of world leaders, and to confront the pressing moral and social issues of the day. It was the site of President George W. Bush’s Inaugural Prayer Service and later the National Prayer and Remembrance service on September 14, 2001.

I did a free tour of the place and I have to say, this cathedral was more beautiful in real life than in picture. The tour was supposed to be for an hour but I couldn't stay long (only did the first 30 minutes). Photos taken at the cathedral:

Hopped back on the bus to the metro station and took the metro to the Dome in Rosslyn to see Bodies - The Exhibition. Innovative, real, groundbreaking – a must see! I've never seen anything like this. The exhibition showcases real human bodies, giving visitors the opportunity to see themselves in a fascinating way like never before. The exhibition will enlighten, empower, fascinate and inspire. Very mind blowing when you look at real human bodies preserved, cut up, skinned, deboned (you could even see the fetus in different stages). would probably not eat meat for awhile after spending the day here...but it sure does make you want to care for your health – most of the exhibits came from willing donors who were sick and/smokers smokers. Costed me USD26.50 to see the exhibits and unfortunately no photography allowed (oh, I so want to show you all what I saw!). Still, it was worth coming to have a look.

Rush, rush, rush...Now I've to catch the metro to Capitol South and hopefully the US Capitol is still open by the time I get there! You know, if you mapped out all the places I had been today in a DC map, you would probably have lines everywhere! I think I was in Metro Center like 5 times today changing trains!! Good thing for the day pass...hehe...Saved me heaps!

The US Capitol is the capitol building that serves as the seat of government for the United States Congress, the legislative branch of the U.S. federal government. Erik mentioned that the Library of Congress nearby was worth the visit but it was closed by the time I got there (surprisingly the museums in DC closes by 5pm). Oh well, I tried...

Walked all the way along National Mall towards Washington Monument. The Washington Monument is the most prominent, as well as one of the older, attractions in Washington, D.C. It was built in honor of George Washington, who led the country to independence, and then became its first President.

My god, how far IS it from the US Capitol???? Was so tired walking. About 45 minutes later, I finally got to the monument for free walking tour at 6pm and met Nga there. The free tour was conducted by 2 young lads from City By Foot Free Walking Tours. The tours run 6 days a week, from Tues-Sun at 6pm. No reservations necessary. All you have to do it turn up at the Washington Monument and look out for people wearing baby blue shirts. It was a fantastic and hilarious tour - the guides were a good laugh with their anecdotes and acting! Something new that I learn today: The notes (US money) consists of 25% linen and 75% cotton thus you won't have to fear your money tearing apart if you left them in your pocket and had your clothing washed :) Photos taken during the walk:

Thank you Nga for keeping me company during my brief visit in DC! Please keep in touch and hope to meet up again soon - perhaps you can show me your lovely country, Vietnam next time :)

Time to head back to the backpackers and put my feet up. Feeling so, so tired from all the walking today. It'll be another early start tomorrow - New York, here I come!

Monday, 15 October 2007

Week 3 in Chicago (24th - 30th September 2007)

Monday, 24th September 2007: Antonio waited till midnight to give me a surprise birthday present – a scarf and an ape soft toy! Oh, you’re so sweet! Thank you!! Hey, so when did you buy it and where did you hide it? I was mostly at home but didn’t see or find the hidden present (and his apartment is pretty empty so it’s not like it would be ‘hidden’). Hmm…

Headed off to Shedd Aquarium, The World's Aquarium in Chicago this morning. It was a very big aquarium - felt so tired from so much walking! Lots of exhibits to see from fishes to mammals and even lizards. Oh, and I went in for free. Yep, it was another one of those free admission days :) See? I did my homework beforehand...hehe…Photos taken at the aquarium:

I went to The Field Museum next which was located close to the aquarium. I was minding my own business walking towards the museum and went to throw away my muesli bar wrapper in the rubbish bin when I heard someone calling out to me “hey you!” – I froze, thinking that I must have done something wrong, like throw the wrapper in the wrong bin or something. I turned my back to find a park district officer in his truck signalling to me to come over. Oh-o…am I in BIG trouble? I braved myself and walked over…and he said, “Konnichiwa!” to me. OK, now THAT wasn’t what I expected. Turns out he just wanted to chat to the lone tourist (me, that is) and tried all the greetings he knew in all the Asian languages to guess which country I came from. Wrong, wrong and wrong! “Ok, I give up – where do you come from?” he finally asked. Oh, and by the way, when I tell people that I come from NZ, I get all sorts of interesting responses of what people perceive of NZ – All Blacks, Lord of the Rings, green country, lots of sheep, adventure sports. He asked me which state in Australia it was in and how far it was to drive to from Sydney. Right…er, if you could drive past the ocean…He was nice enough to invite me for a ride with him along the lake while he does his park rounds tomorrow but I’ve got other plans. Thanks anyway!

45 minutes of chit-chat later, I finally entered the Field Museum. Another large complex with lots of exhibits to see (make sure you take time out to visit places like this). The Field Museum is also home to Sue, the largest, most complete preserved T-rex fossil yet discovered. Sue stands 13 feet high at the hips and 42 feet long from head to tail. One of the only pieces of Sue that is not mounted is her 5-foot-long skull, which is too heavy to be placed on the steel armature that holds together her more than 200 fossilized bones. In its place, the Museum has installed a cast replica. Sue’s real skull is on display in an exhibit on the second-floor balcony overlooking Stanley Field Hall. Photos taken at the museum:

Around 6pm, I went to meet up with Antonio at his office. There was a salsa social dance event in the university so we thought it would be a good idea to check it out. Nothing was really happening – there was a free introductory class but not really suited for us. Antonio ended up chatting with the organiser who was keen to look for more salsa teachers – Antonio may be teaching beginners rueda in the next term. Cool! I would like to be able to do that too (teach dance, that is), perhaps when I’ve settled down somewhere for a longer period.

Oh, here's a photo of me and Tumba (the ape) taken before going out for dinner:

We took the car and went to Tango Sur, an Argentinean restaurant for dinner to celebrate my birthday. I was missing a good steak and the Argentinean way of cooking steak was supposed to be top-notch. Hmm, my tummy was grumbling already…It was rather packed tonight and lots of chatter. We were seated outside having candlelight dinner, enjoying the evening breeze. Dinner was really nice but we should have stuck to ordering 1 main meal for the 2 of us (I was so full and we had to pack half of the food home). Ordered 2 dishes Churrasco (my large cut of Argentinian beef topped with chimichurri, a sauce and marinade for grilled meat) and Parillada (Antonio's mixed grill containing short ribs, chorizo, blood sausage and sweetbreads). And we still managed to squeeze in a flan for dessert! Photos at the restaurant:

To top the night off, Antonio took me to this place called the Green Mill Jazz Club where a live jazz band was playing bossa novas and blues. Interestingly, the audience were not allowed to talk when the band was playing. Ah, it was very nice slow music to sway and drink red wine to. Hmm, I can so see myself getting used enjoying my life like this. Thanks so much for the wonderful night, Antonio! Photo at the Green Mill:

Another birthday, another year older (oh yeah, I can feel that now I'm no longer 25, haha!) and wiser (hope so though I had all 4 of my wisdom teeth pulled out already) :P What's my wish for the year? Simple - happiness and good health. Without these 2 key elements, even with all the riches in the world, one would not be content with life :) Well, maybe a few other things thrown in as well but that's secret...hehe...

Tuesday, 25th September 2007: Stayed at home today to apply for jobs in Wellington. Only 3 more weeks till the end of my holidays and I will need the money!

By the way, I googled 'sweetbreads' (I ate quite a few of them last night - it was so yummy) to find out what it was. Antonio wouldn't tell me so I did my own investigation. You will not believe what I found: Sweetbreads is the name of a dish made of the thymus gland or pancreas of an animal younger than one year old. These animals are usually lambs or calves. The idea of it makes me feel a bit queezy inside but hey, least I can say I've tried something pretty exotic for my birthday! Woo-hoo!!

Antonio and I went to another famous jazz bar/club at night called New Apartment Lounge on 47th Street. This area we were is notoriously known to be the “Black” area i.e. me or Antonio will stand out in the crowd as neither of us were African Americans. The type of jazz music played was not so much my cup of tea. Each individual member of the group did a stint which made the one song last like what seemed forever. It got better for me when 2 women joined the group and sang.

There was this policy the bartender had: minimum 2 drinks at the bar. Antonio and I were sitting at the bar and there was no way I could have my 2nd drink (I wasn’t feeling too good). The bartender just wouldn’t have it and started to grumble so we offered to pay for another beer but told her she could keep the drink. That didn’t help! She got even angrier and said there will be no next time (she didn’t take our money either). Weird...

Wednesday, 26th September 2007: Spent the day chilling out at home. Went to have dinner with Antonio and some of his friends at the university bar called The Pub (a 'hidden' underground bar in Ida Noyes Hall Basement). It is a private club and students pay USD5 for the annual membership while guests pay USD1 at the door. Paco and Maria were there and I met another couple Luca (a new professor in Antonio’s department from Italy) and his Portuguese partner Katarina. It was a nice drinks and dinner night – we’ll have to do this again soon! Oh, and The Pub makes the nicest vegetarian burgers I’ve had with curly fries! Not to mention, the pint of beer was really cheap (I think it was USD12 for a pint).

Thursday, 27th September 2007: I didn’t do much today but stayed home. Was feeling a bit under the weather so slept most of the day.

Friday, 28th September 2007: I went to Co-Op on 53rd Street to do the groceries today. Not sure what happened but the police was pinning down a guy who was beaten up just outside the store. Bloody situation!

Spent the afternoon with Maria at the Midway Plaisance in Hyde Park just sitting on the grass watching people walk by. It was fun to hang out with her and get to know her better. And it was such a nice sunny day too!

Antonio and I later went to picked up Luca, Paco and Maria (they were all living in Hyde Park) and went meet Laura for dinner at Pizza Metro. Pizza Metro is one of Laura’s frequent places to grab a bite and they had a very nice variety of pizzas that you could order. Claus came with Lau (that’s what we call Laura) by bike (by the way, it’s very common for Chicagoans to bike), and Vlado joined us shortly after.

All of us headed off to Danny’s for drinks and dance. It was so funny to ‘race’ Claus and Lau on the road (they were cycling and the rest of us were in the car). The music tonight was kind of hip-hop but out of nowhere, the DJ played a salsa song. Sure enough, Antonio and I wouldn't miss the opportunity for a dance. It was strange in the sense the whole dance floor opened up and people watched us dancing. I had fun and our audience enjoyed it (they clapped when we finished). Hehe...Liz (Jonathan’s gf) and Beth came to join us at Danny's. Photos ‘sneakily’ taken by Beth:

Gabi sure has strange ways for us to track him down. He was supposed to meet us at Pizza Metro but we left before he got there. He left a message with one of the guys and we called him back, not on his mobile but Pizza Metro’s number (Gabi doesn’t have a mobile phone)! We had to ask the Pizza Metro staff to pass the phone to the Uruguayan who’s eating there!! And they had no problem finding him too – Gabi must have done this often enough...hehe…

Saturday, 29th September 2007: Spent most of my day finalising my trip to Washington DC and New York. Yep, heading over on Monday to DC and pre-planning places to visit during my short 1-week trip to both cities. Most of my trips to date were self day-trips or with friends and family. This will be exciting – my very first official trip travelling on MY OWN in a foreign place!!

Antonio and I went to see Sax in the City at Midway Plaisance perform in conjuction with the Hyde Park Jazz Festival on 59th Street and bumped into Luca near the end of the show. It was a nice evening enjoying the sunset and wonderful sax songs.

Vanya, another friend of Antonio’s, later caught up with us (me, Antonio and Luca) and we all went to do takeaway at Caffe Florian (the cafe is located just across the street from where Antonio lives - how convenient!). Claus, Vlado and Lau met up with us there and we had dinner and drinks at Antonio’s apartment before heading to 55th Street to Cecelia’s 26th birthday party (she’s Antonio’s cousin’s cousin – distant relative in short). Happy birthday, Cecelia! Photos taken this evening:

Sunday, 30th September 2007: Another gorgeous day in the city of Chicago. Ah…

Headed off to the lake with Antonio to soak in some afternoon sun before Sunday soccer game at Lincoln Park. Luca, Paco, Maria and us seem to be inseparable these days! Hehe…we had a great time on the soccer field – my first soccer game!! I didn’t know how to kick the ball properly or defend (sorry team!) and the ball keeps ending up at all the wrong places (to the other team too!). Ai yai yai – no, no, no!!

We were famished by the end of the game. Luca, Paco, Maria, Antonio and I went to Chinatown for dinner at Sushi Lounge, a subterranean Chinatown spot decked with colorful, quirky furniture, including chairs that resemble giant hands. Hmm, I haven’t had any sushi since I left Wellington so am looking forward to some nice sushi. It was quite a long wait for the sushi though (were they catching the fish??!) and I’m was STARVING!