Indonesia Travel: Motorbikes, Monsoons, Monuments, and Monkeys – Part 3

There are three must-see sights in Yogyakarta on the island of Java. You don’t endure 20+ hours of travel and miss out on two monuments on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites and the mighty volcano Mount Merapi.

I highly recommend that you get a driver to take you to these main sights. They are all near Yogyakarta. We found our driver and host through one of my companions’ tennis pro in Jakarta, who knew a guy…. This “guy,” our host, also plays tennis and his son is a ranked junior in Indonesia. It gave us something to talk about. We had a full day and were lucky with the weather — mostly cloudy, humid, no rain.

Our first stop was Borobudur, the largest Buddhist temple in the world. Religion has factored large in Indonesia’s long history. One dynasty or another has held sway through the centuries, and their favored religion — Buddhist, Hindu, or Islam — would be dominant. The Sailendra dynasty, of which there is little information, ruled Java for five centuries. They presided over Borobudur’s construction in the late 8th century. After about 70 years and the input of successive generations of Sailendras, Borobudur was finally completed. There is no written record of how the temple was used, but it is attributed to Buddhism. By the early 11th century, the Sailendras went *poof!* and abandoned the temple. Indonesian dynasties came and went over many centuries. Could Mount Merapi’s massive eruption in 1006 A.D. have caused the Sailendra exodus, or were they displaced by another dynasty?

Borobudur was re-discovered in the 19th century amid shrubbery and underbrush. Nature had reclaimed its space over the centuries. Indonesia restored the temple in the 1970s and it was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Walking through park grounds toward Borobudur, we encountered a gigantic spider exhibit. They were hanging in trees, in webs, and presented in assorted creepy ways.

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You’ve got to get past the spiders to reach Borobudur.

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Borobudur’s construction consists of nine stacked platforms and a central dome. There are 2,672 relief panels and 504 Buddha statues, including some without heads. We climbed a lot of stairs and walked around several levels before reaching the top. See this website for an art historian perspective.

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IMG_4680 copy - BOROBUDUR KAH

We interacted with groups of charming Indonesian students. Their teachers told them to find foreigners, practice English with them and take a group photo. First of all, in a total eight days on Java, I never saw another Black person, not even from Africa. Second, we are American, which might have been another prize (?) among the foreigner contingent. (We had encountered few Americans ourselves, which was fine with me because I was on vacation from other Americans. But, I digress.) Being Black and American might explain why these school kids stared at me. If I looked halfway friendly, they came over. It was cute to see each group push in front the kid who spoke the best English. And they were so polite!

The star English speaker is right in front of me in this photo.

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We rejoined our host, who took us to his restaurant, Pondok Merapi. This is an off-the-beaten path restaurant, and our host was nothing if not enterprising. By hosting a day tour with a driver, the itinerary included lunch at his restaurant.

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He walked us around his property to show the fruit trees and vegetables they harvest for the meals. A rooster and hens roamed the property. The chicks were cared for in a separate area. Our host explained the system he installed to route fresh, unadulterated water to his property.

Pontok Merapi chickens

As for lunch, there was no menu. The meal was comprised of whatever was grown or raised on the property. We had delicious soup and vegetables. Best of all, we had the “real chicken” our host promised. Even if we had first encountered our chicken in the restaurant’s front yard, it was a novelty to eat food so fresh, organic, and delicious!

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After lunch, we loaded up in a jeep to see Mount Merapi, one of the most active volcanoes in the world. It has had more than 70 eruptions since 1548. The most recent was the catastrophic eruption in October 25, 2010. Between October 23-24, 2010, more than 500 volcanic earthquakes were recorded until Mount Merapi finally blew and lost about 38 meters of its height. It was true to its name “Merapi,” which means “Mountain of Fire” in Javanese.

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Our first stop was House of Memory in Cangkringan Village. This house is now part of a museum showing how Mount Merapi destroyed a nearby home.  The scene was how I imagined nuclear aftermath complete with dust and ash.  In one room, a computer keyboard and television were melted in place.  (I could only take a couple of photos before museum personnel shut me down.)

Nearly 1 million people live near the volcano. After the devastating 2010 eruption, approximately 400,000 people evacuated and 2,200 families lost their homes. Displaced households were permanently relocated to safer areas.

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We got back in the Jeep for a jarring drive to a spot where we could view Mount Merapi.

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When we arrived, we went to Bunker Kaliaden. It was built to provide temporary shelter from hot gases caused by Mount Merapi’s eruptions. In 2006, two men, who were helping evacuate people from the area, sought shelter in the bunker, and became trapped. To reach them, rescuers had to dig through six feet of hot ash and debris, and then remove a red-hot boulder at the bunker entrance. The trapped men died from the intense heat. You can read more here and here.

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Our host walked us to this location to see the great Mountain of Fire. As we wondered what was the point of walking to this particular location, our host pointed in the direction of the volcano. It’s “over there.”

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Taking his word that it was “over there” somewhere, the volcano was completely obscured by fog. Then he told us that sunrise is the best time to see it. (I could actually see Mount Merapi from my hotel balcony so I had to be satisfied with that.) In one way nature didn’t cooperate with us on this excursion, but in another way it did. At least Mount Merapi didn’t act up and make us run for our lives.

Back in the Jeep, we bumped along the gravelly road back to our host’s restaurant, arriving with bruised hind parts. (Maybe I’ll speak for myself on that one.) We transferred to our suddenly super-luxurious SUV.

In late afternoon, we arrived at another outstanding monument, Prambanan — a large Hindu temple complex.

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Like Borobudur, Prambanan was constructed while the Sailendras were still in power sometime in the 9th century. It’s the largest Hindu temple in Southeast Asia. I wonder if the monument-building was a little competitive:  Buddhist vs. Hindu, or Buddha vs. Shiva. Regardless, at that time, there was peaceful religious co-existence.

By now, you should know that Indonesia is prone to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. According to the UNESCO World Heritage Centre:

The temples collapsed due to earthquake, volcanic eruption and a shift of political power in the early 11th century, and they were rediscovered in the 17th century. These compounds have never been displaced or changed. Restoration works have been conducted since 1918, both in original traditional method of interlocking stone and modern methods using concrete to strengthen the temple structure.

You can see piles of stones around all the temples, probably from previous disasters. Prambanan was damaged again in 2006 by another earthquake. In Indonesia, it never ends ….

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Prambanan Temple from staircase

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Prambanan was dedicated to three Hindu deities — the Creator (Brahma), the Preserver (Vishnu) and the Destroyer (Shiva). Three temples were also erected to the animals that serve them — (Nandi (a bull calf), Garuda (a bird-like creature with bird and human features) and Hamsa (an aquatic bird).

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Prambanan is a large compound and it had the feel of sacred space. In all our movement around in that area, I discovered I lost my little purple camp towel. I considered it a stroke of inspiration that I had packed this towel. I needed that towel because, being monsoon season, it was humid. It was not possible to re-trace my steps as I had gone up and down temples, in one entrance and out another. I scanned the grounds from a perch to see if a little purple towel had sullied the grounds. Then, I went to one security guard after another and used this photo to ask about my towel.

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I took a seat on the wall for a bit. I showed a guard I hadn’t seen earlier this photo of my towel. He went somewhere, and came back with it. I was so happy ….

We shattered the 10,000 steps per day activity goal exploring monuments that day. And we still had a cultural performance at Prambanan as the day’s last event. We skipped it, though, because dinner was more compelling. Thus ended a long and very satisfying day.


Indonesia Travel: Motorbikes, Monsoons, Monuments, and Monkeys – Part 1

Indonesia is my most unique travel experience so far. Credit goes to my travel companions for planning this trip. For the first time in years, I was along for the ride and had no expectations. In fact, I knew next to nothing about Indonesia and its geography. This travel adventure included cities, countryside, a four-passenger river cruise, and a rain forest.

After the December 2018 tsunami, someone asked me if I was still going to Indonesia in January. Of course! I didn’t think I’d be anywhere near where the tsunami hit on Java. And, unlike a certain world leader, I fact-checked my assumption and tried to at least have a clue about this Asian nation.

10 Facts About Indonesia

  • Indonesia has two seasons — wet (monsoon) and dry. I was there in January during monsoon season, which lasts from about November to March.
  • Two of my city destinations — Jakarta and Jogyakarta — are indeed on the island of Java. The tsunami originated in the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra. Jakarta was on the end of the island near tsunami impact.
  • Indonesia is in a region known as the Ring of Fire due to its frequent volcano eruptions and earthquakes. In fact, it had three disaster events in 2018: flooding and mudslides, earthquake, and tsunami.
  • Indonesia is an archipelago of more than 17,000 islands. It is Southeast Asia’s largest nation.
  • Java is the most populous island in Indonesia.
  • The island of Borneo (the Malaysian name) is shared by Indonesia (whose territory is called Kalimantan), Brunei, and Malaysia. Borneo is the third largest island in the world.
  • Indonesia is the fourth most populous nation in the world after the United States.
  • Bahasa Indonesian is the official language; and there are over 300 native languages.
  • Indonesia is a Muslim-majority nation. Religious tolerance is part of the Constitution; however, blasphemy is against the law and the penalty is prison.
  • By law, since 2006, Indonesians must carry an ID card that declares affiliation with one of six officially recognized religions: Islam, Hindu, Catholic Christianity, Confucianism, and Buddhism.

JAKARTA

Jakarta was my home base for travel in the archipelago. It is not a tourist destination, but it is the nation’s center of commerce. Considering we flew in and out of the city three times in two weeks, my observations are superficial.

Modernity and luxury co-exist with pockets of squalor. Go down any tiny alley and be amazed at how densely populated it is. Street food abounds. There are also many good restaurants, including international ones. We enjoyed a very good meal at a Japanese restaurant called Sakana.

You need to be aware of clean water issues for drinking water, fresh fruit and vegetables. (Sometimes I forgot about that and ate raw fruits and vegetables. Luckily, I didn’t suffer any GI issues.) Security checkpoints and scanners are everywhere: mall entrances, gated communities, and office buildings. And, rush hour traffic….!

Traffic was epic. It moved under a code only Indonesians understand. Road rules seem to be very loose, and signage and road markings are treated more like a suggestion for order. Three clearly marked lanes become five when about a hundred motorbikes join the fray with cars, trucks, and buses. There is neither time nor space for distracted driving. All motorists are squeezed and traffic becomes a game of inches.

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The dreaded Jakarta rush hour.

Motorbikes might travel both ways on a one-way street if it’s more convenient for the rider and the rider can get away with it. All motorists use horns frequently — a tap, not a blast — to warn other motorists that they’re being passed, or they’re really, really close. Of course, that’s the intended purpose of horns, as opposed to how they’re used here in the Washington, DC region to signal annoyance and rage. It was fascinating to watch traffic maneuverings at street level or from a high-rise. My conclusion: Indonesians are the best motorists (car or motorbike) in the world. You can’t teach those skills.

Motorbike riders wore helmets (by law) and flip-flops. If it rained or stormed, riders might huddle somewhere, but most just popped on their rain ponchos and kept it moving. Riders with helmets that say “Grab” or “GO-JEK” operate like Uber. I assume that those motorbike operators can only have one passenger at a time. Otherwise, there was apparently no limit to the number of passengers a rider can have. The record number of people I saw piled onto a motorbike was five. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a photo of that record-setter. The fifth passenger was a baby strapped to a passenger’s chest.

 

There is no such thing as motorists automatically yielding to pedestrians. In fact, the cities — Jakarta and Jogyakarta — were not especially walkable or pedestrian-friendly.  Where there was a sidewalk, it was little wider than a curb. Crosswalks near malls were, again, a suggestion to motorists to let pedestrians cross the street. In addition to all of this, motorists drive on the left, like Brits, which adds another layer of challenge for perambulating the city. Ninety-nine percent of the time we took a “Taksi” everywhere we wanted to go in the cities.

Jakarta is a city whose population has outgrown its road system.  The good news is completion of the rapid transit project scheduled to open March 2019.  (And I wonder what it will be like for people to walk to those stations.)


Stay tuned for upcoming posts featuring Jogykarta, Bali, and Kalimantan!


A New Experience: Backpacking and Camping in Yosemite (Part 2)

I’ve asked myself:  Would I have done this trip if I’d had all the facts beforehand?

Before leaving my cousins’ for Yosemite, I did a five mile practice hike on hilly terrain with 15 pounds in my backpack. A friend of theirs suggested I hike nearby Mount Tam to prepare for the altitude. He told me I’d be climbing for the first three miles from the start at Yosemite.  He considered altitude to be a significant factor. Crap…I hadn’t trained for it…and this was no time to start.

Everyone had advice. Cousin Doreen suggested I swap my brother’s sleeping bag for hers because of size and weight. So I did. Brother David suggested I leave the heavier legging and shirt base layers of clothing behind because of the weight, plus I wouldn’t need them. So I did. After those adjustments, my backpack weighed 22 pounds.

Sleeping bag comparison

Sleeping bag comparison

The first part of my adventure was getting to Yosemite. The drive wasn’t complicated, though I lost the highway around Oakdale, California. When I stopped at a store for course correction, the shopowner gave me a package of nuts. That was very nice of her, and I accepted. But, it would be more weight in my backpack, and I knew I couldn’t leave the nuts in the car.

I’m a snacker, and didn’t snack in the car for the entire road trip. Why? I’d read that no food, crumbs, packaged food, or coolers should be left in the car. Any food left in the car had to go in a bear can or a food locker. Otherwise, bears can sniff out the food. They’ve been known to bust in and rip out back seats for food stashed in the trunk. Now that’s a powerful sense of smell. This snacker was not going to put the rental car at risk.

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Wind farm

Foothills en route to Yosemite

Foothills en route to Yosemite

The drive to Yosemite was beautiful.  The topography changed from gentle hills with wind farms around Livermore, then orchards around Oakdale. I was in the agricultural Central Valley and passed produce stands.  I started seeing foothills, as the road gently started to climb. The Sierra Nevada mountain range began to reveal itself.

Mariposa lily?

Mariposa lily (?)

Beginning of alpine country - Yosemite

Beginning of alpine country

The first elevation sign I saw was at 2,000 ft. Groveland is the last major town before Yosemite. The elevation there is 3,136 ft. (I was getting a little oh-shit concerned because, even if I could have prepared, I live at 341 ft elevation. En route to Yosemite, I was still climbing upward.) At that point, the temperature was hot-as-hell 90+ degrees.

After Groveland, I reached the “Priest Grade” part of California State Route 120. It climbs. It has dropoffs with no guard rails. (My mother would have lost her mind if she’d been with me.) The road went up, up, up and the signage showed higher and higher elevations. As I began to get drowsy, I knew my problem was the altitude.

Priest Grade portion of CA Route 120 - Yosemite

I entered Yosemite National Park at Big Oak Flat Entrance. This did not mean the trip was over. I had 1-1/2 hours more to go inside the Park to reach Tuolumne Meadows and the backpackers’ camp.

A few facts about Yosemite National Park:

  • The Park is 1,169 square miles, 94% of which is wilderness
  • The Park’s 10 highest peaks are between 12,446 – 13,144 feet
  • There are 800 miles of trails
  • Yosemite has five of the world’s highest waterfalls
  • The Park is on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list
  • It is the U.S.’s oldest wilderness park
  • The 9th Cavalry regiment of the Buffalo Soldiers became Park Rangers in 1905 for Yosemite and other state and federal lands. (I did quick research to see if my grandfather had a link to Yosemite. He was a Buffalo Soldier between 1905 – 1910, but he was in the 10th Cavalry.)

I parked at turnouts to photograph the scenery. One of my ‘wow’ moments was when I saw Tenaya Lake, adjacent to Route 120.  The lake is at 8,150 feet elevation. I was only going up in elevation and not down. It is what it is, I thought.

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Tenaya Lake – Yosemite National Park

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Tenaya Lake – Yosemite National Park

I reached Tuolumne Meadows — elevation 8,600 feet.  The temperature was now mid-70 degrees outside. I unloaded my gear and looked for the REI group. On the way, I met a young woman who was backpacking alone. She was from Texas and at Yosemite to hike the John Muir trail. Now that’s intrepid. It was heartening to see. I hadn’t been exposed to this world at all and, even in its most basic form during scouting, I managed to avoid it.

Breathing hard and totally winded, I lugged my backpack up a little hill to find the group. My physical reaction to this little tiny trek of 300 yards did not bode well. I hoped my body would acclimate overnight to the rarefied air. I knew the next day would be the most challenging of the whole trip.

I met my fellow backpackers. Ages ranged from 18-57+. We came from Mexico City, California, Colorado, Illinois, North Carolina, and Maryland. Some were novice backpackers (like me), and some were experienced. Four of us were lawyers, which is a weirdly high number among a group of 12 backpackers.

Our guides cooked dinner, which is a big bonus.  As we sat around the campfire in REI’s camp chairs, they told us what to expect the next morning. We were instructed on how to use the “facili-trees” when it was time. Doing “No. 2” required special instruction, having to do with the use of a shared trowel.

1st Night BP Camp - Tuolumne Meadows - YosemiteBackpackers camp - Tuolumne Meadows - Yosemite

The temperature started dropping in early evening. I was glad I’d brought layers of down outerwear.

KAH at Backpackers Camp 2 - Tuolumne Meadows - Yosemite

It was a long night. I was in a tent by myself, as I’d initially feared. I kept my pack outside the tent, my boots inside the tent, along with my head lamp. My next day’s hiking clothes were folded inside the sleeping bag with me so they’d stay warm.

I tried to get comfortable, but I’m a sprawler.  A sleeping bag is confining. I followed David’s advice to sleep in underwear because he said I wouldn’t need more. It got colder and colder…down to 42 degrees. I regretted letting Doreen talk me out of David’s “Mars grade” sleeping bag — suitable for extreme cold. (Doreen’s was suitable to 40 degrees.) And David had talked me out of bringing heavier base layer leggings and shirt.

I was cold. You can’t sleep when you’re cold. I don’t like to be cold. Somehow, my head finally found its way into the sleeping bag hood because it’s a mummy bag. That was my “Aha” moment. That’s what I needed so I could get warm. I went with it, zipped all the way up, stayed still, and warmed up. I may have even finally slept a little. Other than our guides, I was up at first light and dashing to the toilet (while I still could).

First morning 2 - backpackers camp - Yosemite

We stayed at Tuolumne Meadows backpackers’ camp only one night. We had the luxury of flushing toilets and cold running water (but no soap) in nearby bathrooms. We used REI’s cups, plates, and utensils. We had camp chairs. We had an actual water cooler and a bear locker. We had a picnic table and bench, and commercially-purchased wood for the campfire. We were spoiled and didn’t know it. We were “glamping” that first night, in comparison to what was coming.

First Morning - Backpackers Camp - Yosemite

When everyone was up, we ate breakfast and made our lunches. We had to re-pack our backpacks to include a bear can, a portion of camp equipment, and our tents. Each bear can had a share of the group’s food in it. We put our personal snacks and toiletries in the leftover space. Why put toiletries in a bear can? Because bears can still pick up a scent. It is part of bear-proofing the campsite. With the extra supplies, my backpack weighed closer to 40 pounds.

Re-packing the backpack - First morning - Yosemite

Re-packing the backpack – Bear can labeled “Tioga”

And so it went as we prepared to hike higher into Yosemite’s wilderness….

(Check out Part 3 of this series! )

 

 

 


What is it about Belgium?

Belgians might sum up their country’s national identity by saying: “It’s complicated.”

This country appealed to me because of the cultural duality I saw in its tennis stars, Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin. They represented Belgium as Fed Cup teammates, but were not friends. These two tennis competitors mirrored their country’s competing regions. That bit of intrigue, and the fact that relatively few Americans travel there, is why I wanted to go.

I spent two weeks in Belgium in 2007; and three days there in 2015 with my local friend, Mollie. Even Belgians wanted to know “Why Belgium?” No one could understand how I could spend an entire two weeks in the country.  To put it in perspective, Belgium is about the size of Maryland. I can’t imagine traveling in Maryland for two weeks and being as enthralled. So, what is it about Belgium?

Belgium map from Insight Guides Belgium

Map from Insight Guides – Belgium

I’ve seen Brussels described in news articles as a second-tier European capitol, which means the rest of the country is probably held in the same regard.  Belgium’s cities, though, have been major financial centers throughout the centuries. For instance, in the 17th century, Ghent, in Flanders, was the second largest city in Europe after Paris.  Liège, in Wallonia, was a major producer of steel during the Industrial Revolution. Now, the European Union (EU) is headquartered in Brussels, which is known as the Capital of the EU.

Did you know…

  • Dutch-speaking Belgium is known as Flanders; and French-speaking Belgium is known as Wallonia. These two regions are culturally, economically, and politically different, and sometimes at odds with each other. Cultivating a single national identity is a challenge.
  • Ancient cities, Tongeren and Tournai (in Flanders and Wallonia, respectively) were part of Roman Belgium (or Gallia Belgica) in 27 B.C.  Earliest reference to Brussels is around 960 A.D., known then as “Bruocsella.”
  • The “Flemish Painters”  — Sir Peter Paul Rubens and Sir Anthony Van Dyck and others — flourished in the Baroque tradition in the 17th century. (Don’t confuse them, though, with the “Dutch Masters.” That group includes Vermeer and Rembrandt.) René Magritte was a famous Belgian surrealist of the 20th century.
  • There is a saying about “meeting one’s Waterloo.” Waterloo, just south of Brussels,  is where Napoleon finally got his little arse kicked by a combination of British, Dutch, and German forces back in 1815.
  • Portions of what is now Belgium were controlled at different times by the Romans, the Spanish, and the French. Belgium was part of The United Kingdom of the Netherlands until 1830 when it gained independence (and its own monarchy) under King Leopold I. Though younger than the U.S. as a nation, some of Belgium’s cities and villages date back a millennium.
  • Belgium is bordered by France, The Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Germany. Its official languages are French, Dutch, and German. Brussels is a mandated bilingual (French and Dutch) city and province.
  • Belgium was invaded twice by Germany in World Wars I and II. The Second Battle of Ypres inspired the famous poem “In Flanders Fields.”

German WW II bunker - Flanders, Belgium

Remnants of German Bunker – Flanders

Poppies in a field - Flanders

Poppies in a field – Flanders

  • Belgium’s regions are mostly politically autonomous and the government is de-centralized. Amazingly, Belgium went 541 days without an elected government from 2009-11.
  • Belgium currently has the third most robust economy in the EU.
  • Flanders has a fierce lion on its flag; Wallonia has a cock (male rooster!) on its flag; and the national flag of Belgium is identical to the German flag in colors — the only difference being vertical versus horizontal stripes.

Gravensteen Castle with the Flemish flag

Gravensteen Castle – Ghent – Flemish flag above

belgiumflag copyRooster - Ghent 2

What is it about the Belgian brand?  For food that has been exported world-wide, there’s Belgian endive, Belgian waffles, Brussels sprouts, Belgian chocolate, and Belgian beer and ale.  People have made a pilgrimage to Belgium for the beer and ale alone.

Belgian beer-tasting

Beer-tasting in Flanders

Even some dog breeds rate a Belgian brand, like the Belgian shepherd, Bouvier des Flandres, and the very interesting-looking Griffon Bruxellois. Maybe, just maybe, a Belgian brand means Belgium has a national identity after all.

Belgium is a diverse country. When I was there in 2007, I was struck by the number of Muslims and Africans living there. In the 1860s, Belgium became a colonial power when it stole the Congo (now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo).  The exploitation continued until the mid-1950s.  Belgium also controlled a territory, formerly known as Ruanda-Urundi, and now known as the Independent Kingdoms of Rwanda and Burundi. Hence, the African populations in Belgium from the Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi.

I wondered when and why Muslims migrated to Belgium. In the 1960s, the first wave of migrants came from Morocco and Turkey. They were in Belgium on guest worker passes. Later, these migrants were followed by those from Algeria and Tunisia. Muslim populations in Brussels and Antwerp are comparable in size to those in Marseilles and Paris.

From my observations, North African Muslims and Africans did not appear to be thriving or part of mainstream Belgian society. I thought the same thing about Paris back in 1998, and recently in 2015. But, I was just passing through, so what did I know? Since then, I’ve learned my observations were on point. As an African-American, I have radar for this sort of thing.

What is it about Belgium? Why do people from these groups still come? Linguistically, Belgium works for native French and Dutch-speakers from anywhere in the world. And Belgium’s “balance sheet” is very much in the black. Migration generally occurs in the direction of opportunity. The question is whether everyone can partake in opportunities.

After the Brussels terrorist attacks on March 22, 2016, media outlets seemed to focus on Belgian authorities as being a bunch of boobs. That the Belgian government is mired in incompetence. That Brussels is an incubator for jihadists. That the EU is a failure when it comes to communicating intelligence to its member states. That Belgian nationals were among the Paris terrorists, and it’s Belgium’s fault because they were radicalized there. Any iota of sympathy for loss of lives and property in the Brussels attacks was overwhelmed by the recriminations.

What is it about Belgium? The public response toward Brussels was not like it was toward Paris when it was attacked in January and November 2015. Did someone press the mute button on the sympathy response? Where was the Belgian flag overlay for the Facebook profile photos?  Some people think it’s because Belgium is not as well known as France.

Shortly after the Paris attacks, I wrote this piece. It applies to Belgium’s tragedy from jihadist attacks, too.  Mollie was on her way to work when she was turned away at the Métro station and sent home. The Métro had already been attacked. In Mollie’s words, “the fear is palpable.” Belgium’s predicament has been ours, too. Terrorism occurs all over the world.

What is it about Belgium? Tiny and complicated though it is, Belgium is an historical treasure, and a major player in contemporary European politics. Without a doubt, Belgium and the EU have particular challenges.  I’ll give Belgium a moment or two to regroup before I travel there again…and I certainly will.

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Paris: Eating Like a Local

I’ve been thinking about my trip to Europe last October because my sister, Cheryl, will be traveling there soon. We’ve talked about how food is a major part of the travel experience. And we definitely love food.  What does it mean to “eat like a local”? It can mean eating where locals eat; eating the way locals eat (with locally-used utensils or hands) and even eating at the time of day locals eat.

Of the three European cities I traveled to, I spent the most time in Paris. I love French food, but my diet has changed over the past eight years. No béchamel sauce, crêpes, croissants, pastries, and baguettes for me. So I thought. But, I also figured I could navigate my little food quirks, even in Paris.

The French take their entire culture — language, art, music, wine, and food, very seriously. They are clear about what it means to be French. France has a Minister of Culture presiding over touchstones of French identity and French contributions to the arts. French words pertaining to food, like restaurantgourmet, café, connoisseur, and cuisine are commonly used in English language.

French cuisine has always been a gold standard for trained chefs; and I have read that the cuisine is in crisis.  So what does that mean? Food at an authentic-looking bistro may have been previously frozen, perhaps pre-assembled, and not totally prepared in-house with raw ingredients. Read about it here.

(Good lord…that sounds like American restaurant chains! I didn’t have to leave home for that!)

So, with that awareness, I decided to be discriminating about where I would eat in Paris, same as I am here. I would not eat at bistros with burgers and pizza on the menu. I can get that food here (if I were so inclined — which I am not). But, then again, when you’re fresh off the plane and it’s lunch time, you might just bust those standards and eat anywhere. People who know me know that I go from very hungry to “hangry” fast.

I found Bistrot La Bonne Cécile a mere two blocks from my Airbnb and ate lunch there. The menu is rotated seasonally. The restaurant served fresh food made in-house. I could not have been more delighted with my first meal on the Continent, and glass of Sancerre. The restaurant was charming and the service was exceptional. (Tip: you do not tip in France.)

Soup course - La Bonne Cecile - Paris

Soup course – La Bonne Cecile – Paris

Entree seafood pot and rice - La Bonne Cecile - Paris

Seafood pot and rice – La Bonne Cecile – Paris

Coffee is big in Paris, but I don’t drink it. I indulged, instead, in chocolat chaud (hot chocolate) made with milk and cream. Made right, it’s oh-so-rich. I’m lactose intolerant and didn’t get a stomach ache from drinking it!  Best cups are made with chocolate, not cocoa powder. As noted in this blog, using a powder instead of a high-quality chocolate bar with its rich cocoa butter, is really hot cocoa and not hot chocolate.

Paris has an abundance of ethnic restaurants. I enjoyed them, too. I also had great meals at very casual restaurants. One of them was Le Pain Quotidien. My friend, Charlotte, asked me to meet her there. We have one in D.C. — that I’d never been to — and I didn’t expect to go to that chain in Paris. Well, it was a cut above and delicious! I had a great salad, gluten-free bread, and a bowl of soup. I’ve since been to Le Pain Quotidien in D.C.

Some other casual restaurants in Paris:

Divin’ Art, near Arts et Metiers Metro, is a gluten-free crêperie in walking distance of my Airbnb. I ate a savory crêpe (smoked salmon, soft-boiled egg, and peppers), carrot soup, green salad, and a chocolate crêpe.

Savory gluten-free crepe - Divin Art

Gluten-free crepe from Divin’ Art in Paris (Marais)

While walking in search of Paris’ street art in the Oberkampf neighborhood, I found this vegetarian and gluten-free restaurant. I had a fresh juice, carrot soup, and a vegetable rice and almond dish. Simple, healthy, and delicious. And the meal was cheap!

Vegetarian gluten-free in Paris

L’esprit Tchaï – Paris

Rice and vegetables

I also ate food that was a little out of my comfort zone. The complete meal here was the salade niςoise and escargot, with a glass of white wine.

Salade nicoise

Salade nicoise with anchovies

Eating escargot was a challenge. I eat escargot because they are a super-beneficial food for my blood type. I take an almost medicinal view toward it.  I don’t go into a swoon over the taste, but escargot is more than just palatable. The challenge was dealing with the little animal in its shell, which was a first for me. The escargot I’ve eaten has always been hidden — thankfully, because they are rather ugly — under a garlic, parsley and butter sauce in a snail plate. No shells included.  But, I had on my big girl panties and would eat escargot like the French.

I asked the server to show me how to use the snail tongs. First, you grip the shell, which is when I had the Pretty Woman moment. The shells are indeed “slippery little suckers,” but at least they didn’t go flying across the room. Next, you use the little fork to pull the critter out. After an embarrassing struggle, I managed to grip three shells and pull out three escargot. I couldn’t get the last two out of their shells.  As far as I was concerned, no one was home. The server was watching me, so I asked him to try. I wish I’d taken a video of him trying to find the snails. He probably thought it was just me. He gave up, too, and put in an order to replace the two snails that had gone missing.

Escargot

Escargots

See this video for how to eat escargot.

Another outside-the-comfort-zone food was this dish of wild mushrooms (chanterelles, porcini, and parasol) and poached egg.  I don’t like poached eggs, but I gave this dish a go.  It was a work of art, interesting and tasty. The restaurant, La Mazenay, was lovely; and the service was meh.

Le Mazenay - wild mushrooms and poached egg

A highlight was lunch with Charlotte at elegant Bofinger’s near Place de la Bastille.  I had this delicious fish and vegetable dish.

Fish and vegetables in sauce - Bofinger's

I also ate this dish of sauerkraut, or choucroute. It was not part of my order. It came from the table of diners next to ours. I was eye-ballin’ their sauerkraut because they weren’t eating it, and it looked good. They were eating the pork all around it instead. Charlotte asked the diners if I could have a taste. That was a little tacky, I know, but I guess they decided to help the American out.

Choucroute

Another food that is not everyday fare in the U.S. is  rabbit, or lapin. I had this very tasty rabbit and prune stew at Le Pichin 3 — a family-owned restaurant in the City of Chartres near the Cathedral. Damn, it was good!

Lapins at the market

Lapin at the market before one was turned into stew

rabbit and prune stew at le pichet 3

Rabbit and prune stew at Le Pichet 3

In addition to chocolat chaud, I enjoyed two other kinds of sweets:

Macarons — looking like colorful little hamburgers, these gluten-free cookies made of almond flour have a flavored cream filling. They are everywhere in Paris. Quality matters. Eat enough of them and you can distinguish the mediocre from the sublime.

Macarons

Les Macarons

Panna Cotta — the best I’ve ever had in my life came from a tiny Italian restaurant Charlotte and I ducked into to escape the rain. This was Charlotte’s dessert. After a taste, I had to order my own. The texture was perfectly smooth, and the sweetness came from the berries and sauce.

panna cotta in Paris

Panna Cotta

My main dining event was a six-course dinner at Pierre Sang in Oberkampf. The hostess took everyone’s food restrictions and preferences. You don’t order from a menu. The six courses are the chef’s choice and everyone gets the same dish, customized as requested.  The hostess answered our questions about what we had eaten afterwards. I was fine with that. It was part of the experience. Reserve a seat at the bar so you can watch the chefs and talk with other diners, especially if you’re solo.

I was thrilled that the Pierre Sang experience was only €45. For the same price here in D.C., a diner could pay that or more for uninspired fare.

There are so many options for dining in Paris. You can dine satisfactorily or fabulously for good value in this city.  Challenge your food comfort zone when you travel, and eat like the locals!

 

 


What I Think of Parisians

When we think of Parisians, we think of artists, fashion designers, style trendsetters, and people who express the joy of living. On that last note, I’ve always heard the French embrace the “work to live” ethic. It’s so much more in line with having a balanced life.  (Sigh.)

These are my additional thoughts about Parisians.

1. PARISIAN DOGS HAVE A SPECIAL PLACE IN SOCIETY.

Parisians have little dogs. Parisian dogs can go almost everywhere their owners go —  unless they’re expressly not allowed (like cemeteries). I think French bull terriers are a favorite breed.  No surprise there!

French bulldog at Le Pain QuotidienFrench bulldog at lunch

Usually, Parisian dogs are on a leash; but sometimes they’re not. This particular dog looked like he belonged right in that spot. People had to walk around him because he wasn’t budging.

Unleashed and ignoring everyone

I came across this dog — ancient, toothless, and dearly loved by her owner. She accompanies her owner to antique shows and flea markets in this antique baby carriage.

Elderly dog in antique baby carriage

Parisian dogs have attitude — a certain je ne sais quoi. This one had a stylish strut, like his owner. The Parisian dogs I saw didn’t consort with strangers and were downright aloof. I couldn’t get their attention at all.

dogs with je ne sais quoi

(My sister’s dog, Lulu, would never be mistaken for a Parisian dog. She’s the right size, but, bless her little heart, way too friendly and undisciplined.)

Lulu and Wiley copy

Lulu – on the left.

2. PARISIANS ARE NOT RUDE SNOBS. 

I don’t understand the reputation the French have in the U.S. for being snobs and rude. I’ve never had that experience, especially in Paris. Parisians interact with “politesse.”  The word originates from the Latin word polire — meaning, to polish. Politesse means formal politeness. Courtesy. Basic civil interaction. Good manners. Geez…what a concept.

These four little French words can earn you some engagement with Parisians:  “Bonjour” (hello), “Merci” (thank you), and “Au revoir” (goodbye), and “Pardon” (Excuse me).

I stopped people on the street regularly to ask for directions. I would get someone’s attention with “Pardon, (Madame / Monsieur). Bonjour.” To which they would respond, “Bonjour.” I would ask for directions in a way that was not brusque or entitled. I’d start my  question in French with “Je cherche….” (I am looking for….) and pull out my map. I’d always be respectful, because … guess which one of us needs help. After awhile, I understood directions en français:  “tout drois” (straight ahead); à droite (to the right); and à gauche (to the left).  Even the most rushed person would stop, listen intently, and pull out their smartphone for Google Maps to show me where to go.

Parisians — they had me at “Bonjour.”

3. PARISIAN KIDS PLAY AND ARE TRAINED TO BE INDEPENDENT. 

I was struck by the number of kids I saw un-tethered to adults. We call them “free-range” children in the U.S. I saw these kids independently making their way to school, none of them with eyes glued to a device. Some kids looked as young as eight. They were usually in pairs or small groups, talking and laughing with each other.  Some kids rode through Paris streets on their scooters. I also saw plenty of Parisian parents with their kids, especially in parks.

place des vosges - kids

Teenagers – Place des Vosges

kid on scooter

Young musician on scooter at Pont St. Louis

place des vosges playground

Kids playing – Place des Vosges

Father - daughter playing in front of Eiffel Tower

Father – daughter playing: Parc du Champ de Mars

On a side note: I saw a Parisian dad publicly discipline his son. The child was a hellion, willfully disobeying his dad and charging across the street on his scooter with dad in hot pursuit. I stopped to watch the spectacle. (I had a flashback of the uninhibited discipline U.S. parents gave their kids before “helicoptering” took over.) This dad snatched that boy off his scooter, and spanked him down to the ground. The boy got up, and reached for his scooter. The dad didn’t give it back.  Maybe he was training the boy for the day when he could safely and independently ride his scooter on Parisian streets. Good for that Parisian dad!

4. CAFÉ DINING IS A PARISIAN WAY OF LIFE.  

Parisian cafes are equipped with awnings and heat lamps. Bad weather won’t stop the unabashed people-watching. If  you notice, everyone sits facing the sidewalk and the chairs on the other side of the table are empty. The outdoor café diners are the audience; and you…passersby…are the show.

parisian cafe culture

5. PARISIANS DO TINY SPACES WITH STYLE.

I gave myself a splurge at the end of my trip and decided to spend my last night in Europe in a traditional hotel. But, I didn’t really want an ordinary hotel. I checked out quirkyaccom.com to find something different that I could afford. The price, about €135,00, was right for a splurge in the 15th arrondissement.

Circular bed at Platine

Hôtel Platine is a cinema-themed boutique hotel. Hence, the blonde babe as the focal point over the bed. That bed was a huge playground! Alas, I was solo. Just so you know, the blonde bombshell over my bed gave me neither nightmares nor a complex. I slept very well, and was happy to wake up still me with black hair and smart.

The bathroom was the most efficient use of space. Lighting options were a Hollywood production.  For instance, this shower could be lit with regular lights or amped up with red lights, as shown here.

Hotel Platine Bathroom ShowerHotel Platine Bathroom Sink

I was dazzled by the glass-walled bathroom, and it took more than a minute to realize this was a two-piece bathroom.  As the French would say, “Oú est le toilet?”

Hotel Platine Toilet

In a room that was only yea big, I opened doors until I…found it! Behind a door that I thought was another closet, there was the toilet and this lip-smacking wallpaper.

Other unique hotel features were the movie screen in the elevator, the Turkish bath available to hotel guests, and spa services for additional cost. The hospitality was top-notch here, too. I’d come back for another splurge.

I look forward to traveling to Paris again, and discovering more of the city and its residents. About those Parisians: I’m a fan.


Planes, Trains, and Vehicles – Getting Around Europe (Part 2)

Onward to Brussels!

I thought three weeks would be enough time to make a train reservation from Paris to Brussels. The cities are less than 200 miles apart and a high-speed train could get me there in an hour and a half. My plan was to arrive in Brussels early on Friday and leave for Amsterdam on Monday. My new friend, Mollie, was expecting me. Plus, I wanted to get there in time to check out Marolles Flea Market at Place Jeu de Balle.

Alas, travel by train was not to be. I scoured train schedules, and a 10:45 p.m. arrival on Friday was the best I could do. I was on the phone with my sister, Cheryl, as I waged battle with the Thalys reservation system; and then surrendered. She knew I was frustrated when we hung up. How else could I get from Paris to Brussels?  About a minute later, I had my answer. I was excited! I immediately called Cheryl to tell her I would be traveling by….

Megabus

Megabus! This is the same bus company I use to go to New York. It’s cheap and comfortable on the East Coast. And it’s really cheap and comfortable in Europe. My bus ticket from Paris to Brussels cost just under $13! For that price, I didn’t care that the ride would be three hours longer than the high-speed train. My Megabus was going to get me to Brussels by 12:20 pm!

Sweet!

Megabus departs from Porte Maillot, which is on the Metro line. The station is within sight of the Arc de Triomphe and the cars racing around L’Etoile.

Arc de Triomphe et L'Etoile

I left the apartment around 6 a.m. and walked along empty streets to the subway. It was still dark outside when I arrived at Porte Maillot. I didn’t know the lay of the land so I gave myself plenty of time to get lost. At Porte Maillot, I glommed onto another traveler, who was also looking for her bus. She was headed home to Germany on another cheap ride — FlixBus. Europeans really know how to get around, don’t they?

Au revoir, Paris! A bientôt!

The bus ride was relaxing, and I was able to sleep a bit. We had one 30 minute stop for water, snacks, and the restroom; otherwise, we went straight in to Brussels. I snapped photos of the scenery along the way.

The bus pulled into Brussels Nord (North) Station. I missed an opportunity to photograph the train station exterior because I was desperate to find le toilette. Durn! Now I need to return to Brussels someday to photograph the train station. Speaking of les toilettes, keep coins handy because a trip to a stall will cost you.

There wasn’t a lot of action at the train station when I arrived. Why? Train employees were on strike that day. Strikes are planned in advance and probably the reason why I couldn’t buy a ticket for a train that would get me to Brussels at a decent hour. No matter… I had discovered Megabus.

I took the flea market off the itinerary. I was starved and needed to meet up with Mollie. She’d given me instructions on how to reach her office building via Brussels Metro. The Metro is great, and includes subway and tram lines. Have I mentioned before that I love mass transit?

Brussels Metro stations have interesting artwork. I remembered that from when I was there in 2007. Photographing the art in all the Metro stations is another good reason to return to Belgium. (Every excuse will do.)

Metro station - BelgiumBelgian Metro station art

Although mass transit factored large in getting around cities, I’ll give a shout-out to walking as an underrated mode of transportation. Mollie and I enjoyed a long walk to National Basilica of the Sacred Heart. It’s popularly known as Koekelberg Basilica.

The Basilica is a marvel of Art Deco-style architecture, and it is the fifth largest church in the world. Construction started in the early 20th century, but was interrupted by two world wars. It finally opened in the 1970s.

Basilica - BrusselsBasilica interior 2Basilica interior - BrusselsBasilica exterior - Brussels

After visiting the stunning Basilica, we took Metro into the city.

Metro stop with Basilica in background

Metro stop with Basilica in background

With Mollie in Brussels

Grand Place is an iconic Brussels site I wanted to see again. This town square is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its scale, compared to other town squares in Belgium, or elsewhere in Europe, is immense and majestic. Hotel de Ville (Town Hall), constructed in early to mid-15th century, is located there.

Hotel de Ville is surrounded by guild houses because tradesmen and merchants were held in high regard. Guild houses are sort of like trade unions in the U.S.  The great French writer, Victor Hugo, had a house on Grand Place as well.  You can find Grand Place in miniature, along with other iconic European Union structures, at Brussels’ Mini-Europe.

Day trips are incredibly easy from Brussels because of its three major train stations: Nord (North), Zuid (South), and Central (Central).  Back in 2007, my mother and I took day trips to Brugge, Antwerp, Ghent, Liege, Namur, and Tournai. Those cities, along with Brussels, are in six of 10 Belgian provinces and Brussels-Capital Region.

Mollie and I went to Brugge for the day. It’s a city in West Flanders province, popularly known by its French name, Bruges.  You can reach Brugge from Brussels in a little over an hour by train for about €30 roundtrip. Advance reservations aren’t necessary. (Tip: Check the website’s Stations and Trains page for a list of “Disturbances.” It will notify customers of strikes.)

Once in Brugge, you can rent a bike, take a boat ride, or walk. This small city is perfection.

Brussels is a wonderful destination in its own right. It is also a great base for day trips throughout Belgium. I highly recommend it!

Next … the finale of Getting Around Europe (Part 3).

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