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January 12, 2016

How to have “a Lat” of fun in Latvia (and Estonia, for that matter)

After a short day in Copenhagen, we made it to sunny Riga, Latvia!  After waking up at our very reasonably priced and comfortable hostel, we headed for the medieval streets of Old Town.

We spent the morning ambling through cobblestone streets snapping shots of the 17th century architecture and crumbling buildings.  Many of the buildings were pillaged in WWII and have been restored to their original beauty.  One of the most notable is the House of Blackheads built in 1344 by the Brotherhood of Blackheads merchant guild.

After listening to a somber street violinist in the square, it was time for some snacks at the Central Market.

The market is housed in four Zeppelin hangars built in 1930.  These hangars were never actually used for aircraft but immediately became the home of one of the world’s largest markets with over 80,000 visitors each day.  Each building has a different theme– meat/dairy, fish, produce, clothing, etc.  Merchants sell everything from hand-knit socks to amazing pastries.

We stuck more to the pastries.

There were plenty of locals stocking up on food, so this was an excellent opportunity to snap a few photos of Latvians in action.  Still being new at that kind of thing, I wasn’t sure how to go about this.  Do you try to take it while they aren’t looking?  Do you ask them?  I went with the former strategy and pretended to take photos of a lot of things around me and then snapped several quick shots when my subject wasn’t looking

This method was only moderately effective.

I got the photo, but apparently the woman with the pink bag was a little camera shy.  She began shouting at me in Latvian and flailing her arms wildly.  Oops.  The people around us stopped and stared while I retreated horrified.  I’ll try the other approach next time!  I did, however, manage to get a second photo of the man with the flowers.

Pre-yelling shot Pre-yelling shot

Luckily, we found some great street food at the market.  Nearly everything cost about 1 Latvian Lat (approx. $1.70) or less, which made for a cheap day of eating.  We enjoyed a black tea for 0.80 Ls, ½ a kilo of amazing strawberries for 0.75 Ls, a fresh homemade donut for 0.10 Ls, an apple filled pastry for 0.16 Ls, a loaf of rye bread for 0.58 Ls, potato pancakes for 1.16 Ls, a stick of cured sausage for 1.07 Ls, smoked salmon for 1.6 Ls, fresh bread and cheese for 1.04 Ls, and 2 beers for 1 Ls each!  This came to a grand total of only 8.22 Lats– about $14– for two days of food.  Not bad.

Estonia was a different story.  A Lat Kroon doesn’t quite go as far north of the border.  The two Baltic countries are somewhat similar in feel except the noticeable differences in quality of life and per capita income.  Riga had a very gritty atmosphere with very few tourists.  It felt like dropping in on the daily life of the local culture, which we really enjoy.

Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, relies heavily on tourism.  Their Old Town is filled with fancy restaurants, chic coffee shops, and costumed peasants and monks to recreate the Middle Ages for the masses.  There are some great views of the old city wall and towers, and it is undoubtedly a beautiful city.  However, it felt a little disingenuous at times.  Check out our Flickr gallery of Estonia.

Our CouchSurfing host, Mirjam, showed us some of the “real” city.  She also took us around to some other great sights like the open-air museum and the Kadroirg art museum.

On a side note, the lengthened daylight hours in the Baltics requires some adjustment.  The sun doesn’t set until long after midnight and rises around 4:00 a.m.  Add in cross-Atlantic jet lag, and you’ve got a seriously screwed up sleeping and eating schedule.  By the time we were ready for dinner, it would sometimes be 11:00 p.m. or later!

We said goodbye to Mirjam and Estonia last night, and we are currently relaxing in Stockholm after our overnight cruise on the M/S Victoria I.   Our journey through Northern Europe will be wrapping up Wednesday when we fly to Barcelona.  We found some unexpected treasures buried in the former Soviet States, and I’m very glad we started our journey here.

April 21, 2011

Five Foods We Miss

Five Foods We Miss

We’ve been back in the States for four months now. We’re still pretty unsettled, living with a friend, sleeping on an air mattress, and searching for jobs. Our travels seem almost like a dream at this point. As soon as we got back into the swing of things in the city, it seemed like we never left. It’s hard to believe we did and saw so much.

The single thing we’ve missed most about traveling is the food. We’ve made it a point to seek out some of our favorite dishes from the road here in Chicago. But, it just isn’t the same. Here are some foods that we’ve been pining for lately.

Thai Street Noodles

My favorite thing about Thailand was the street food. Little old ladies at each corner dish out the best soups I’ve ever had from a huge bubbling pot. The soups usually had chicken bits (I don’t want to know which parts…), noodles, and lots of vegetables. The broth was so flavorful and satisfying that we’d have it for almost every meal. Plus, you can’t beat the price. You can get a huge bowl of soup for under $2.

Tomàquet amb pa...

Spanish Tapas and Pan Con Tomate

I love, love, love Spanish food. My favorite tapas were the boquerones (fried white anchovies), fried calamari, and olives. I’m also a huge fan of the Catalan appetizer of pan con tomate. Crunchy toasted sourdough bread is topped with a little olive oil and then a fresh juicy tomato is squeezed over the top. The quality of produce in Spain blew me away. I’ve never had tomatoes that tasted so good!

Thali time - Jodhpur, India

Indian Thali

Indian is always high on our list of favorite foods. One of our favorite items to order in India was Thali. It’s almost like a lunch combo special. You get a big plate with lots of little curries and sauces with bread and rice. It was always very filling, full of flavor, and super cheap.

Middle Eastern Hummus & Falafel

There are a lot of great Mediterranean restaurants in Chicago, but we have not been able to find any that serve up hummus and falafel as good as we had in Egypt and Jordan. Our meal of choice in Jordan usually consisted of a cucumbers, carrots, tomato, and pita along with a big bowl of hummus and a side of freshly fried falafel. This usually cost us just under $2 including a couple of Cokes! I still haven’t quite broken myself of this food habit and head over to our local Middle Eastern joint and get the vegetarian platter at least once a week fro my falafel fix.

Lunch time - Izmir, Turkey

Turkish Kebabs & Tea

Another of our all time favorite street foods is the Turkish Kebab. Chunks of meat are rubbed with lots of yummy spices and grilled before your eyes with peppers and onions. I love the way the Turkish kebab is served wrapped in tortilla-like pita and then a tube of paper that is peeled away as you eat. After you stuff yourself with a kebab you must have the obligatory glass of Turkish tea. Don’t forget the sugar cube!

What foods do you miss?

March 9, 2011

How to love Guatemala

How to love Guatemala

Well, I’ve been back in the U.S. for about a month now. I finished up with Spanish class in Xela and flew to Ft. Lauderdale, FL on Valentine’s Day! Clark and I met there and spent a couple weeks soaking up the sun in South Beach. (More on that strange place coming soon!)

Thinking of visiting Guatemala? I’ve come up with a few tips to make the most of your Guatemalan experience.

Also, be sure to watch my see Guatemalan Highlights video at the end of the post!

Senora Ana y Kim - Xela, Guatemala

Graduation Day at Minerva Spanish School!


source site Learn a little Spanish! You’d be surprised how far a simple “Hola, como estas?” will go with local people.Spanish is also quite necessary to be able to communicate with most Guatemalans. There is very little English spoken in most areas. Sure, you’ll always find a tourist to speak English to, but to communicate with the locals, Spanish is a must.

Learn the meaning of “Va”. When in Quetzaltenango (Xela), my host mom kept adding, “Va, Kimberly” at the end of her sentences. Sometimes when I was leaving, sometimes not. I thought she was saying “bye” until I discussed the topic with a fellow classmate. We asked her instructor and he told us that it was sort of a shortened form of “Verdad?” which means “true?” or “right?” So, she was basically saying “Yeah”. Apparently it is a very commonly used word in Guatemala. I heard it a lot in Xela.

Get used to guns! Armed men are everywhere in Guatemala. Even in the heavily touristed areas you’ll find private guards at coffee shops, convenience stores, banks, ATM machines. It’s quite disconcerting and didn’t make me feel safe at all. It actually made it seem more dangerous.

Eat the street food. While I wasn’t blown away by the food in Guatemala, there were some tasty street foods that I just couldn’t pass up. Most of them were fried, like Pupusas and Doblados. However, I really liked getting a crispy tostada once in a while too. It’s a crispy tortilla topped with guacamole and a Guatemalan version of cole slaw. Yummy.

Pupusas! - Xela, Guatemala

Ride a chicken bus. I know it can seem scary, but just use common sense, take short trips, and be aware of your surroundings. Very few tourists are targeted for violent crime on the buses. Most incidences that occur are between citizens. You won’t regret having this interesting cultural experience.

Chicken Bus - Xela, Guatemala

Drink Coffee. Eat Chocolate. I’m not a huge fan of coffee, but my time in Guatemala has pushed me higher on the coffee drinker spectrum.  The coffee and chocolate here is some of the best in the world. Definitely buy some freshly picked and house roasted coffee at the shops on Lake Atitlan. Tasting some chocolate is also a MUST. My school took us on a chocolate tasting outing that was just amazing. Try the thick, creamy hot chocolate. You won’t regret it.

Chocolate y Frutas - Xela, Guatemala

Go to the lakes! Words can’t really describe the beauty of Lake Atitlan. Photos only capture some of what you see. It is much more than that. It is tropical, relaxed, and peaceful. You’ll also get to dive right into the Hippie culture, or just watch from afar!

Take Salsa lessons. Salsa dancing is fun, fairly easy, and great exercise. Everyone in Guatemala knows the basic salsa steps. Even if you have two left feet, suck it up and take a few lessons. You’ll be glad you did. Going to a salsa club and watching the more advanced couples twirl around is great!

Eat the fried chicken. I know it seems like I’m going on and on about this topic, but it really is quite good here. The best fried chicken I had was in Xela at the weekend market. It was fresh, juicy, and packed with flavor. Don’t forget to add some hot sauce!

Here is a little highlights video I put together. Enjoy!

January 26, 2011

5 Things I Love About India

5 Things I Love About India

I was back in the U.S. for a few weeks around the holidays and really enjoyed talking about our trip with our friends and family. We got the usual questions about favorites and least favorites. Some comments and questions about India made me think we were too harsh in our previous posts.  A lot of people assume we didn’t like India. (Maybe it was all the cow shit talk…) On the contrary, we liked it quite a bit, it’s just a tough place. In an effort to help people understand the great things about India, without going into the negative, here are my 5 favorite things!

1. The Food

Thali time - Jodhpur, India

A typical thali feast

No surprise here. I already loved Indian cuisine, so how could I not love the better, and cheaper, real thing? Some of my favorite items were veg pakora, bhindi masala, and palak paneer. We also ate a lot of Thali, which is like a sample plate of a few curries and sauces with naan or roti. Even in SE Asia we made it a point to seek out Indian neighborhoods for a meal at least once a week. Travelers shouldn’t be afraid to jump right in and enjoy the food in India. Just use your head and watch for anything that looks unsanitary. If the place is full of locals, the food probably isn’t making people sick, or they wouldn’t be in business.

2. Saris

People - Jodhpur, India

The colors, textures, and sparkles of the Indian saris are vibrant and beautiful. It seems that the sole purpose of an Indian woman is to look pretty. We were in India around the time of Diwali so maybe the women were stepping it up a notch for the holiday. I loved seeing a girl in a colorful sari clinging to the back of a scooter with her scarf blowing in the wind. Somehow, they keep that scarf on while zipping through traffic! I didn’t buy a full sari, but I did buy a silk sari-like shirt and beautiful Pashmina scarf for a great price. If you’re going to be in India for a long time, go ahead and get a sari. Locals love too see non-Indians trying to blend in!

3. Masala Chai

Chai Tea

Chai Tea by Carlos A Zambrano , on Flickr

Already being a tea fan, this drink won me over instantly. It’s black tea mixed with a healthy dose of warm masala milk and sugar. Sometimes is spicier, sometimes sweeter. It depends on who buy it from. You’ll find it served absolutely everywhere, usually in little paper cups. It’s the perfect way to start the day and end each meal!

4. The Smells


Garlands by chooyutshing, on Flickr

Of course I’m not talking about the sewage and cows. What sticks with me the most is the incense and flowers. Every business and home has a little shrine set up and a sweet smell pours out of every doorway. Women and children make garland to sell on the streets, especially during holidays. It adds to the colorful atmosphere and definitely improves the smell! You also can’t beat that wonderful spicy smell that comes out of every market and restaurant. Just thinking about it makes my mouth water.

5. The Photos

Kids - Jodhpur, India

India is a photographer’s dream. Everything is colorful and interesting. You can take dozens of photos just standing on one street corner. It’s also a lot of fun taking pictures of the kids and people. They are all friendly, outgoing, and very willing to have their picture taken. This is not true of the locals in some countries we visited. We even felt like celebrities sometimes. Families wanted to shake our hands and takes photos with the white people. Hordes of kids swarmed us screaming “photo, photo!” Some of our favorite photos on this trip are from India.

Taj Mahal - Agra, India

What do you love about India? Leave your comments below!

January 2, 2011

Street Seafood of Bangkok’s Chinatown

Street Seafood of Bangkok’s Chinatown

Food is undeniably the best part of travel. There is nothing in the U.S. like the amazing street food you can get in Mexico, India, Spain, or Asia. The freshness of the produce and meats and the great flavors from the local spices are amazing. Our main goal upon arriving to a new place is to find the best little hole-in-the wall place that is filled with locals. This usually means the food is great and the prices are better. We ran across just such a place in Bangkok– T&K Seafood.

Chinatown - Bangkok, Thailand

We spent one our first evenings in Bangkok walking around Chinatown. The markets and stores were shutting down, but the streets were still alive with people, cars, tuk-tuks, and plenty of food stalls were still in full swing. More upscale restaurants were advertising shark fin soup, seafood curry, and crab galore, but we didn’t want to pay a lot, so we stuck to the streets.

We came across a large gathering of locals and tourists sitting at stainless steel tables on plastic stools outside of a jewelry shop. Around the corner we could see huge pots of food boiling, saucepans simmering, and buckets-full of fresh seafood on ice. Bingo!

T&K Seafood - Bangkok, Thailand

We grabbed two seats as soon as they became available and took a look at the menu. Crab, seafood curry stews, grilled cockles and muscles, squid soup, fresh oysters, and giant prawns were all very reasonably priced. Our first night we got a stuffed crab cake, crab in yellow curry sauce, grilled cockles, fried prawns, and a big beer all for only 600 Baht.

Crabs! - Bangkok, Thailand

T&K Seafood - Bangkok, Thailand

The food was amazing and it cost only a fraction of what you would pay in the United States.

Cockles - Bangkok, Thailand

T&K Seafood - Bangkok, Thailand

The place was so good that we went back again and again, trying something new each time. This was by far some of our favorite food on the entire trip. The atmosphere was also part of the appeal. You are inches from a loud, traffic-filled street with the huge, neon signs of Chinatown surrounding you. The long cafeteria-style tables are shared with other patrons. This inevitably leads to chatting (if they speak English, of course) about the food, the city, and travel. It is very much a backyard BBQ kind of venue with a very fun feel.

T&K Seafood - Bangkok, Thailand

Worried about getting sick? Don’t be! The seafood is chilled and hasn’t been sitting out in the sun all day. The dishes and cooking utensils were very clean. Huge buckets of fresh water are brought in for each load of dishes. These people set up shop in the same location every night, so they know what they’re doing. They are clearly not in the food poisoning business.

The lady selling two-day old cockles out of a grimy bucket on the other side of the street might be a little questionable. Just use a little caution and you’ll be safe eating street food anywhere. If you are in Bangkok, just head to Chinatown and look for the busiest street corner. You can’t miss it.

Have you had a great street seafood experience? Have other street food tips for Bangkok? Leave a comment below!

December 20, 2010

Krispy Kreme: A Thai Delicacy

Krispy Kreme: A Thai Delicacy

You can’t go wrong with fried carbohydrates covered with carbohydrate glaze. We discovered this local bakery while shopping one afternoon. I can only assume it is some kind of local delicacy. After taking this photo, I had to understand the reason for these insane crowds.

Krispy Kreme has fallen on hard times in the States and other Western countries, but the donut biz-nass is booming over here! They are selling like hot cakes.

Bangkok’s Siam Square is home to the first Krispy Kreme franchise in Thailand. On the ground level of the Paragon shopping mall you’ll see a bright, shiny store with a line that twists and turns out the door and around the block. Pre-diabetic Thais wait for as long as three hours to max out their 2.5 dozen per person limit. You see people carrying big plastic bags filled with Krispy Kreme boxes everywhere, even posing for photos with their boxes. The funny thing is that I’ve never seen someone actually eating a Krispy Kreme. Is this just some sort of bizarre fashion trend? Like purse dogs? Are you not cool unless you have 30 donuts on you at all times?

We’ve walked by several times now, and there are always about 100 people in line. You can even get them on the black market. Just like Omega watches and Armani suits sold on every corner, I’m skeptical of the authenticity. I asked one guy, “Are these actual Krispy Kremes or imitation Kripsy Kremes? I’m not paying 200 baht for knockoff donuts.”

The last thing I want is a box of Mr. Donut or, heaven forbid, Dunkin’ Donuts.

November 27, 2010

Thanksgiving on a Banana Leaf

Thanksgiving on a Banana Leaf

It’s hard remembering holidays on the road, especially when you aren’t immersed in the preparation, advertising, and all of the hullabaloo surrounding them. When traveling, American holidays become just another day. Sure, you’ll see a hint here or there, or share a knowing smile and wave with a fellow Yankee traveler, but other than that, it is business as usual.

On the 4th of July, we grabbed a couple of Whoppers in Seville. For Halloween in Jordan, Clark dressed up like a Bedouin. These holidays were after thoughts. Thanksgiving was a little different. All of our American friends on Facebook and Twitter were busy posting pumpkin pie recipes and swapping tips on how best to brine their turkeys. Even being 9,000 miles away, Thanksgiving couldn’t go unnoticed. We wished our FB friends an early Happy Thanksgiving and headed out for our own little feast.

Our celebration was definitely non-traditional. We could have tried to seek out fellow Americans and scrounge around Penang to find a quasi-traditional meal. Instead, we went the local route. We headed out for a traditional South Indian banana leaf meal that is very popular in Malaysia. We left with bellies just as full and even ordered some dishes that beared some resemblance to traditional Thanksgiving fare.

Indian - Georgetown (Penang), Malaysia

Steamed white rice and vegetarian side dishes were served on a big banana leaf. One was potato-based, another contained spiced green beans, the third was a sweet and spicy tofu, and the last was a small dahl (lentil) curry. The main dishes were a fish, chicken, and vegetarian curry. Papadum, a crispy cracker like appetizer, was also served on the side.

To add a little Thanksgivingness to our dinner, we ordered a spicy pumpkin masala and deep fried bitter squash. Both were quite good. The pumpkin especially added a festive element. We washed all of this down with a mango lasso and Tiger beer. Our South Indian Thanksgiving meal cost about $15. Not bad, and a lot cheaper than a 20 pound turkey.

Indian - Georgetown (Penang), Malaysia

We ventured into the food stalls for dessert and were lucky enough to find a place selling ais kacang. The literal translation for this dish is “ice beans”. This sounded too delicious to pass up. It consisted of shaved ice, red beans, sweet corn, grass jelly, gelatinous agar-agar, condensed milk, and some sort of red, fruity syrup. Luckily, this blob was topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Ais Kacang - Georgetown (Penang), Malaysia

We managed to overcome the appearance and take a few timid bites. It actually isn’t as bad as it sounds or looks, but I wouldn’t say it was good either. The red beans and corn were sweet and almost complimentary to the milk and ice cream. The gelatinous texture of the grass jelly and agar-agar left much to be desired. We ended up digging out the ice cream and leaving most of the beans and corn floating in the icy milk. Ben & Jerry’s definitely won’t be adding “King Kong Kacang” to their menu anytime soon.

Ais Kacang - Georgetown (Penang), Malaysia

We finished the evening relaxing at Starbucks (kind of lame) drinking cappuccinos and listening to Christmas music. The air conditioning was cold enough that I could almost believe I was back in Chicago after a day of Christmas shopping on State Street. That is until I stepped out into the 85 degree night and the wave of 90% humidity hit me.

For this Thanksgiving, I’m thankful for one thing most of all– air conditioning.

November 25, 2010

High Tea in Malaysia

High Tea in Malaysia

The Cameron Highlands is 712 sq. kilometers of beautiful rolling hills and lush, green vegetation about 1,500 meters above sea level in the Titiwangsa Range. We spent a relaxing day visiting the many agricultural attractions of this peaceful hill station.

Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

You can’t go far in the Highlands without seeing strawberries.  The climate and hydroponic growing method allow the strawberries to be harvested year-round. They grow the berries above ground, hanging from little packs of coconut shells and nutrients.  There are countless farms for you to explore, pick your own strawberries, and enjoy some fresh treats.  We particularly enjoyed the fresh strawberries with cream, strawberry shakes, and dried strawberries.

Fresh Strawberries - Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

Fresh Strawberries - Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

Butterflies and insects abound in the tropical climate and vegetation of the highlands. We visited a little butterfly farm that also boasted a collection of extremely large beetles, snakes, spiders, scorpions, and other huge, frightening insects that I wouldn’t want to come across in the jungle.  The butterflies were very nice though!

Butterflies - Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

Butterflies - Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

The most striking sight in the highlands are the never-ending bright green rows of tea that grow up and down the hills.  We visited Malaysia’s leading tea grower, BOH Plantations.  The company produces 4 million kilograms of tea each year (that’s about 6 cups a day).  We watched the workers in the fields collect the leaves, toured the factory, and enjoyed a cup of tea and scone overlooking the expansive farmland from a great vantage point.

BOH Tea Plantation - Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

BOH Tea Plantation - Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

BOH Tea Plantation - Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

Our next stop found us wandering through rows and rows of roses, carnations, chrysanthemum, dalia, geranium, orchid, and other tropical flowers.  The nurseries in the Cameron Highlands are Malaysia’s largest fresh flower producers.

Roses - Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

Roses - Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

We ended our day at the fifth largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia, Sam Poh.  It was the perfect tranquil ending to a lazy, tea-tasting, food-eating day.

Sam Poh Buddhist Temple - Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

Sam Poh Buddhist Temple - Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

The Cameron Highlands has a lot to offer, especially if you are in need of relaxation.  There are some great local food stalls with friendly people, and loads of farms, plantations, jungle treks, produce markets, hostels, guesthouses, and hotels to make this a great backpacker destination!

BOH Tea Plantation - Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

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