Archive for November, 2009

You just can’t escape it…

Posted in travel on November 21, 2009 by poojaland

…spied this abandoned on the train earlier this week…

The cousins

Posted in family, travel on November 21, 2009 by poojaland

The other night, as we were eating a delicious paneer dinner, U, A and I decided to pose for some self-photos. Here they are, for your enjoyment…

1. I somehow got caught mid-chew, and with my ponytail swinging. U must’ve sensed this, and this was chuckling at me??

2. A goes to reset the timer on the camera, and decides to snap a surprise pic of us in the meantime. This is our fun, new tradition! (And yet, yes, it still caught me unawares.)

3. Finally, success!

Day 6: Den Haag

Posted in travel on November 20, 2009 by poojaland

This morning, we awoke to beautiful sunny skies. We managed to get out of the apartment around 10-something, and then hopped the train out west to Den Haag (aka the Hauge), which is near the west coast of the Netherlands. We’d never gone that direction before, and it was a cool 40-minute trip that went through some farmlands.

Alas, once we got off the train in Den Haag, the weather had changed, and it was ominously warm and a bit overcast. We headed out towards our main sightseeing stop in Den Haag, the Mauritshuis (an art museum). Luckily, there were helpful signs all along the way to help us get there. However, a couple blocks from the station, we were distracted by a Subway.. Being that it was now just after noon, we decided it was lunch time. The menu was very similar to the Subway menus in the U.S. (with the addition of “chicken tikka” and the exclusion of my usual, the BLT [which I improvised by ordering a veggie delite with bacon]), though the price was of course a bit more expensive. Five-dollar six-inch sandwiches, maybe? The place itself was also swankier — it had a lounge-y upstairs area with couches and even some computers. The sandwiches were delicious.

After our quick lunch, it was only a five-minute walk to the Mauritshuis. As a bonus, an audio-tour device was included in the admission fee, so we were able to hear lots of cool facts about many of the paintings. Our main reason to go there was to see the Vermeer and Rembrandt paintings. This museum’s collection is apparently the best in the Netherlands, and the Vermeer paintings included the famous Girl With the Pearl Earring one. I must admit I have a low threshold when it comes to wandering museums of any kind, but this place wasn’t huge (just two floors, and maybe 9-10 rooms total) and the art was truly amazing.

When we exited the Mauritshuis, we were annoyed to discover the rains had moved in (though thankfully, not winds). However, we walked a few blocks around the Mauritshuis to take in the Parliament building and grounds (see picture).

Though I’d worn a winter hat and had on my rain jacket, A had unfortunately worn a hood-less jacket and didn’t have an umbrella. I had an umbrella (of course, being that I’m Ms. Preparation!), so I gave it to her. We then spent the next hour wandering around the various shopping areas. We’d been told to avoid buying much in Den Haag as everything is pricey, but I did pick up a couple souvenirs (a small Holland snow-globe for myself, and a ceramic windmill-scene thing for my parents). We then escaped into a little coffee place (NOT a “coffee house”!) to warm up and dry off with some hot chocolate (delicious!) and this apple pastry (so-so). Then we trudged back to the train station, and were back at U’s apartment around 6. U’s friend/co-worker Hemant was over, and had brought the fixings for pani puri, a delicious Indian dish (see this site for more on pani puri). We ate, talked, drank and talked some more. Then I spent a good hour online researching hostels in Prague. Finally settled on one (a bit more central than the one you’d recommended, Johanna) and went ahead and booked it. Nice to have that weight off my shoulders — I think figuring out lodging can be one of the hardest parts of trip planning, especially for someone like me who has certain standards for the bathroom situation!! Both of our rooms in Prague in Reykjavik have ensuite bathrooms..

Up next: We’re all three going to head into Utrecht for brunch at U’s favorite pastry place in the shopping/eating area of town by Centraal Station. Then we’re going to hop the train to Amsterdam to finish up our sightseeing there. Hoping to hit up the Van Gogh museum and Heineken factory, and then A has a 4 p.m. appointment at this well-known tattoo parlor in the Red Light District (she’s still working out the what/where details of her tattoo). We’ll also do some light shopping, I’m sure. And hopefully with the three brains between all of us, we won’t get lost quite so much this time! Saturday will be our last full day in the Netherlands, with our Prague trip now booked. Hard to believe it! I’m sure it’ll be great to spend time in Prague and Reykjavik, but I know I’ll miss U (of course!) and staying in an apartment. We certainly can’t leave our stuff out and about in a hostel, though our Prague room at least will contain just the two of us (our Reykjavik room could contain up to eight other ladies).

OK….bedtime!

Day 5: Recovery day, and hanging out in Utrecht

Posted in travel on November 19, 2009 by poojaland

Due to A and I staying up until 2 this morning trying again (in vain, alas) to figure out whether we’ll go to Prague this weekend (the fares went up, so we’re debating again), we decided to sleep in a bit this morning, until about 9:30 (or 10:30, on A’s part). Then our plan was to head over to the other side of Utrecht, to check out their best-known landmark, the Dom Tower, which is the highest church tower in the Netherlands. However, U was once again working from home, so we got caught up eating, drinking tea and chatting, and didn’t actually head out the door until just after 4. Unfortunately, once we took a closer look at the Tower’s info in our guide book while waiting for the bus into town, we realized that we wouldn’t make it to the place before it shut down at 5 (all the stores and tourist attractions here closes around 5 or 6, it’s very annoying).

Centraal Station, which is where we were headed, has a ton of shopping/food inside and around it, so we instead decided to stop in there and try some famous Dutch frites (fries). We grabbed some at the first stall we came across, and got a side sauce supposedly curry flavored. We, however, decided it tasted more like a sweet tamarind sauce. All the fries places, as we saw later, supply you with these mini fork things, which makes eating the fries much easier.

Next, we got distracted by an H&M store in the station (like Starbucks in Seattle, H&Ms are on every other street corner in the busier parts of town). I’ve only been in the Seattle H&M a couple times, but was never compelled to buy anything. However, I did walk out of this store with a long, button-up black sweater (from their girls’ section), a scarf and some gloves. On our way back to the main area of the station, we encountered a traveling band periodically playing music to honor of Saint Nicholas’ Eve, which is like the Christians’ Christmas, but celebrated on Dec. 5 (commemorated by a huge parade). The main figure of this event is Sinterklaas. The band members are thus wearing, well, “brown face,” as that’s how Sinterklass appears. we’re seeing images of this dude everywhere right now..

We then met U at 6:15, and she led us out of the station and to a nearby walking/shopping/eating area off a canal. Even at night, the place was really beautiful, with restaurants also below street level along the canals. We went out this particular night because the stores in town all stay open until 9 p.m. on Thursdays (ooh, fancy!). We got another batch of frites, this time with a more traditional sauce of mayonnaise (very good), and after some more walking around, sat down for dinner at this cool, quasi-Italian place. Turned out they only had a couple of vegetarian/chicken-only dishes, so we settled on a pasta dish with mushroom sauce, spinach and goat cheese salad, and chicken satay with, of all things, a baked potato with cream cheese and chives. U and A pose during dinner:

There was a ton of food, so when the server came to bring our check, I asked if he could pack the pasta up for us. I got a blank look.. So I said, “You know, a container for us to take this home? “Leftovers”? So we can eat it later?” But we just got more blank looks. Finally, U was like “Uh, never mind, we’ll just take the check.” A wanted to buy a version of the glass her beer had been served in (it had the name of a Dutch brew on it), so she asked if the restaurant sold them. The server said “No, we don’t sell them, but if you’re careful, you can be shneaky and take it home.” Yes, he said “shneaky.” Not sure if that’s just how the Dutch pronounce that word or what, but we were giggling over it every five minutes during the 30-minute walk home. They won’t box food up for you to take home, but hey, go ahead and steal a glass!

In other news, we didn’t make it to the grocery store today, so no chip-tasting Round 2 quite yet. The weather made a return to lovely today, thankfully. Tomorrow, we’re off to the Hague (or that’s the plan, anyway)!

Lay’s chips’ review, Round 1

Posted in Food on November 19, 2009 by poojaland

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve recently developed a fascination with other countries’ potato chips, mostly those by the brand Lay’s, as they seem to have all kinds of fancy flavors in different countries. Here again are the flavors I picked up on Monday here in Utrecht:

L-R: Lay’s Sensations Thai Sweet Chili, Cheese Onion, Bolognese Originale, Barbecue Ham and Paprika.

The reviews: The Sweet Chili chips are the most unique tasting. A likes them, but I’m not a huge fan of the spices. Cheese Onion is very similar to the U.S.’s sour cream and onion, but has a stronger cheddar (instead of sour cream) taste. Bolognese is close to our BBQ flavor, with a tinge of Italian spices (i.e., oregano). Barbecue ham is basically Canadian bacon (I love bacon, but am not a huge fan of the Canadian variety), and Paprika is again BBQ. Kind of disappointing that despite the names of the chips, they’re very similar to flavors we have in the U.S. I’m hoping to get back to the grocery store later today to grab a couple bags of other Lay’s Sensations flavors. Then I can do Round 2 of my Dutch taste test..

Day 4: Amsterdam

Posted in travel on November 18, 2009 by poojaland

I managed to roll out of bed around 7:30 this morning, but due to U working from home this morning, A and I didn’t actually head out to the bus stop until nearly 10 (we can’t help but chat with U when she’s around!). And then, we were finally off to Amsterdam.

Once we emerged from the Amsterdam Centraal train station, we quickly realized our streak of good luck with the weather had run out — it was blustery and cold and rainy (the light/misty kind we get in Seattle). However, we gamely set out on foot to the Anne Frank Museum, which is located inside the house where Anne’s family hid out from the Nazis for nearly two years. The house is actually empty of furniture (after the Franks were betrayed to the Nazis, their furniture was all removed, and Anne Frank’s father requested that the house be left that way once preparations began to turn the house into a museum), but it’s still a very eerie place to be. With Anne’s father’s help, the museum put together small replications of how the house looked while the Franks were living there. We unfortunately weren’t allowed to take photos in there (though there was no furniture, the book case that hid the entrance to the Franks’ hiding place was cool to see), however.

Our next intention was to see the Van Gogh museum, which looked like a decent (one or two mile??) walk in southern Amsterdam, so when we came upon the Pancake House a few blocks from the Anne Frank house (marked as a “Time Out Best of 2009” spot, no less), we decided to stop in for some local fare.

We split a cherry beer (which was nearly fruity/sweet enough for me to enjoy), and then a bacon “pancake” (in the States, we’d think of it more as a thick crepe) and Dutch cherry poffertjes. The pancake was seriously huge — about 15″ in diameter. In the center were four slices of delicious bacon. The poffertjes were drenched in cherry kirsch, and the alcohol taste was very strong. We nearly made it through the entire pancake, but had to leave a handful of the 12 or so poffertjes on the plate. Just too strong!

We then headed back out, thinking we were continuing south towards to the Van Gogh Museum. However, after walking for 15-20 minutes, we pulled out a map to double-check our location, and we were unfortunately nearly right back at Centraal Station (the north end of town)! Augh. By this point, it was nearly 3, and as we still wanted to head to the Red Light District, we decided to scrap the VGM (if we’re able to get back to A’dam before we leave the Netherlands, we’ll hopefully then hit the VGM).

It surprisingly took us some time to find the RDL; we stopped and asked for directions a few times, but people never gave us good ones, so we ended up just stumbling into the area on our own (it helped that we saw some small red lights strung up across some streets!). In photos I’d seen of the whole brothel/prostitute situation, I swear the ladies stood in windows on the second and third floor of buildings, but in actuality, they were right on the street level! So when we were walking amid a throng of people, we’d sometimes be like two feet from a window where a skimpily clad lady was freshening up her lipstick in a mirror, smoking “provocatively” (a bit of an oxymoron, if you ask me …) or just swaying back and forth trying to look all sexy. The ladies spanned quite a wide range of body/ethnic types, and ages as well.

We also stumbled by the Sex Museum, which we hadn’t specifically been looking for, but decided to check out (especially after U had recommended it to us last night). Man, that place was something else! Tons of nude/silly mannequins (including one just inside the museum entrance that flashed us as we walked by — yikes!) and a LOT of explicit photos, spanning the years and even sexual fetishes, positions, etc. Um.. wow. I had to keep reminding myself to keep a poker face!

Finally.. we spent another half hour doing more random walking around trying to find a nameless (in A’s memory) tattoo shop. We did finally find it, after again asking several people, but A didn’t like any of their designs, and hadn’t found on her own that she liked, so we walked out of there a few minutes later.

On the way back to Centraal Station around 5, we made sure to stop in a “coffee shop” so A could get a “brownie.” First, though, she had to wait about 10 minutes while four teens from England picked out their purchases (each kid ordered about four varieties). A ate the brownie about 20 minutes ago (around 11 p.m.), and it must not be very strong, because nothing exciting is happening yet! However, she said the packaging says it make take up to an hour for one to feel the effect. Doesn’t seem very fun to me..

Had a nice dinner here at U’s, as her co-worker joined us, and brought these potato-patty things (Indian food) he’s famous for. Still no tickets bought for that prospective trip to Prague; man, I’m just tired of planning things! We still need to figure out what we’re doing tomorrow, even, though it may be a trip to the Hague. I just wish U’s place was in Amsterdam proper, as it’s a bit of a hassle to have to take the bus (though it’s only about a 10-minute ride) and then a train (30-40 minutes to anywhere, but around $25 round trip) everywhere we go. However, A and I are loving hanging out with U after so long (I hadn’t seen her since 12 years ago, when I was last in India), and it’s certainly better staying here than in a hostel.

I miss the days of traveling with my parents.. I only had to be ready at a certain time every morning, and everything else would be taken care of from there!

Day 3: Rotterdam

Posted in travel on November 17, 2009 by poojaland

So A and I had been planning to head out of U’s apartment around 8:45 in order to spend in the day in the Hague, but we were all up way too late chatting (as always!), and then I had problems sleeping (yes, pathetic to admit I’m having insominia while on vacation! Too many things to figure out/plan/research …), so we didn’t end up even getting up until 10 or so. We decided to put off the Hague, and instead hit up Rotterdam, which I’d heard didn’t really warrant a huge amount of time to see.

After eating and getting ready here, we hopped the bus to the Utrecht train station, and then were off. By the time we got off the train in Rotterdam, it was about 1 p.m. Happily, there was a little tourist office a couple blocks from the station, so we stopped in to pick up some maps and guidebooks. We intended to go on a couple recommended walking tours, but the streets there are pretty confusing (not to mention the fact that some don’t appear on the maps at all!), so we took a fair amount of detours. But we did see the cube houses (that’s what the shot above/right is of), an outdoor art park, and got in some light shopping. A was hoping to finally venture into a “coffee shop” (ahem), but we weren’t able to find this one recommended by the guidebook, so I guess she’ll try again in Amsterdam.

Here’s a shot of a library (or “bibliotheek”) in Rotterdam:

And a pic of a cool boat we saw off the old harbor (Rotterdam is an interesting mix of the old and new, and there’s construction going on all around town):

We had a drink and some curly fries (seasoned, with nacho-cheese sauce on top) and then hopped the train back to Utrecht around 5:30 p.m.

On the train ride back — which takes about 30 minutes — we made the unfortunate mistake of sitting in the “silent car,” which was indeed…silent. The lack of sleep and activities of the day caught up with me, but since A was already zonked out for the ride, I had to make sure to not nod off myself, or we definitely would’ve missed our stop.

Other random info:

— A and I both tried our Visa cards today — and they worked! So we’re fully functional now with both our debit ande credit cards.

— The Dutch are taking some getting used to.. they’re a bit in their own worlds, kind of like a stereotypical New Yorker. When A and I were lugging our various bags onto the train from the airport, no one offered to help us. And people seem kind of annoyed when we ask them touristy questions (“Is this were we catch the train to Utrecht?”). I guess we’ve been spoiled by all the nice folk in Seattle. I’m not saying, of course, that all the Dutch are like that. We’ve had a few good encounters with service people and one random lady on the street who asked if we needed help finding something.

— As most everyone knows, the Netherlands is big on biking, and that’s how a lot of people get around town. All streets have devoted bike lanes. But it’s so weird to see people just riding around in normal clothes — no bike shorts (or, as my friend Julia would say, “Lance Armstrong gear”), helmet, flashing lights, much less “on your left/right” as they pass other bikers. We’re quickly getting used to looking both directions for cars *and* bicyclists before crossing streets — those bicyclists seem to rule the road!

— We’ve lucked out with the weather so far. It’s been dry, windy, and cool (though not really cold until after the sun sets), with even some blue skies and sunshine now and again.

— Apparently my cousin always falls asleep on the couch at night, so she’s nicely given up her bedroom (and double bed) to A and me. We’d packed sleeping bags just in case, but it’s of course much more comfortable to sleep on an actual bed. The sleeping bags may still come in handy later during our trip, when we stay in hostels.

OK, off to bed now. Hoping to finally get into Amsterdam tomorrow!

Day 2: Mostly mellow, with some nearby "sightseeing"

Posted in travel on November 16, 2009 by poojaland

Nothing too exciting to report as our first full day in the Netherlands comes to a close.. A and I rolled out of bed around 8:30, and slowly began getting ready. We ate some lunch here, and then headed out on foot to take in the local sights (though we’d been warned by U that Utrecht is a pretty residential area). Our fancy “let’s-try-not-to-get-lost” method was to write down our path as we went (i.e., “L on Blahblah … R on Blahblahblah”). After maybe half a mile, we stumbled onto a little shopping area. We spied an ATM, and with bated breath, tried to withdraw money. And we were successful!! So I don’t know what the folks on the Chase help line were smoking last night when they kept telling us that we were using the wrong PINs or what have you — we used the same PINs we tried with the machines at the train station, and everything went through without a hitch. So that huge weight is at least lifted off my shoulders now, though I have yet to try a transaction using my Visa card (which also failed at the train station yesterday). However — turns out that apparently the card machines used to purchase train tickets require some special chip on one’s card, and U, after looking at our various cards, immediately said “You guys don’t have the chip.” So hopefully our cards will work everywhere else, and we’ll just always have to use cash to buy train tickets.

After the momentary high of the ATM success, A and I wandered a bit more around the shops, and went into a grocery store to stock up on some food (U’s cupboards/fridge are a little bare!). I have this newfound fascination with seeing what flavors of chips — mainly Lays — are carried in different countries, after discovering all the exotic flavors you can buy in Canda (the most popular there being ketchup, but they also have curry and I think even dill pickle). And wow, my eyes were bugging out at this particular store — they had probably about five varieties of Lays potato chips, along with five of Lay’s high-end line (the name escapes me now). So I bought a variety pack with little bags of cheese and onion, paprika, bolognese and barbecue ham chips, plus one of the high-end line in Thai sweet chili. I had a pack of the cheese and onion earlier; it was good, similar to the U.S.’s sour cream and onion. A liked the Thai sweet chili better than I did; I wasn’t too keen on the spices in it. Anyway, once I sample several flavors, I’ll have to go back and get full-sized bags of a couple of my favorites, so my friends at work can sample them as well. Oh, haha, and I laughed so hard when we saw that Cool Ranch Doritos here are instead labeled “Cool American Doritos”!

Here are the varieties of Lays I have to sample:

Once we got back, we just watched MTV and read and ate until U got home from work around 6:30. She’s wrapping up a big project, so she did some working from home, and then we ate a great late dinner around 10 (paneer with peas and roti).

We also spent some time tonight trying to figure out how we’ll spend the rest of our days here. A and I are thinking to take one big side trip from the Netherlands, which may be to Prague, as plane tickets are somewhat cheap. The main speedbump there is finding a place to stay that’s convenient, relatively cheap, highly rated/reviewed, etc. Stressful! Anyway, beyond that possible trip, we’ll likely stick to day trips. I.e., tomorrow, we’re planning to head to the Hague. Wednesday, the weather’s supposed to be clearer, so we may head to Amsterdam then (and possibly for a second day later in the week).

OK, going to keep this short, as we’re hoping to get out of here by 8:30 or so tomorrow morning.. more later..

We’ve arrived!

Posted in travel on November 15, 2009 by poojaland

So we have arrived in Amsterdam..

To back track a bit: The past week was non-stop for me, with the combined stresses of packing, cleaning (in anticipation of my friend staying at my condo to watch Buster) and prepping stuff at work (as I’d never really taken much time off before). I of course left so many things until the last minute, though as my dad reminded me, even if I had the extra week I was whining for on Friday, I still would’ve been running around just as much! Thankfully, though, our flight out of Sea-Tac wasn’t until 3:30 p.m. Saturday, so we didn’t have to do the frantic early-morning scramble like on many international trips. That said, I got to my parents’ 45 minutes late, but we’d built in a buffer in anticipation of this, so we still made it to Sea-Tac about two hours before our flight.

The Seattle-Reykjavik leg of our trip, which took seven hours, was thankfully on a barely half-full 757, so Anuja and I had a three-seat row to ourselves. I made some headway in the new Ed Viesturs book (“K2: Life and Death on the World’s Most Dangerous Mountain”), and tried unsuccessfully to get some shut eye. For dinner, A and I split a turkey/spinach roll thing we’d bought in the airport (Icelandair charges for all food).

We had barely an hour in Keflavik airport in Reykjavik, and then we hopped our next plane to Amsterdam. The flight time was about three hours, and this time the plane was nearly full. There were a lot of student-age travelers, surprise…

Once we got to Schiphol in Amsterdam, we had some stress when we tried to buy train tickets and couldn’t get any of our bank cards to work (and yes, we’d let the bank/credit companies know beforehand that we’d be using our cards overseas). Thankfully, Dad had sent A and me off with some cash, so we exchanged it for Euros and used cash to buy our tickets to Utrecht, which is where our cousin U lives. The next stress came when trying to call U to let her know when we’d be rolling in to Utrecht. She’d given us her number, but though I dialed it twice (and wasted several cents, not knowing that those phone machines don’t give you change!!), I kept getting sent to some modem-sounding device (the phone would ring twice, and then I’d hear a loud, long beep). I asked a lady at an Information booth, and it turned out U’s number was a mobile number, which needed a zero in front of it. Who knew! Then we wasted more money, as we didn’t have the 20 cents in exact change (and would’ve had to go downstairs to get change) and the first time I got connected to U, our line was disconnected before I could give her all our info. Lovely..

Anyway, we finally lugged our bags onto the train and sat through the 35-minute ride to Utrecht. U met us at the train station, and we cabbed to her apartment. Crashed for a couple hours, and then spent the evening eating, watching some Dutch TV (“Australian Border Patrol” — love it!) and starting to plan what we’ll do (and where) while we’re in town. Unfortunately, U’s WiFi is down, and the netbook I borrowed from my boss doesn’t have an ethernet port, so my Internet access will be limited during the day. But I may cart the netbook around with me while we’re out and about, in case we step into a cafe/whatever with WiFi. Was hoping to upload some pics from today as well, but the USB ports on U’s computer don’t work correctly, so that’s a fail as well.

It’s been a rather frustrating day, obviously, but at least we made it here. Now I’m going to head offline to see if I can get someone on the phone to sort out our credit/debit-card situation. Here’s hoping for a smoother road for the rest of our stay!