Revival – Cartagena de las Indias, Colombia

Revivir – Literally, in Spanish, to live again.  Even the urge to write comes back like an itch I’ve been having for two years – far too long to be called a writer’s block and far too short to never see that creative outlet again.  My life as a dromomaniac came to a halt when I moved back to New York City last August, and only recently this summer have I felt happy again.  The change coming back to the U.S. after living in Spain for a year was a strange reverse cultural shock; suddenly life was real again.  I lost so much: a low-stress no-stress job with an amazing salary, incredible friends and coworkers who made me smile constantly, and the most difficult to lose, a relationship I thought would last forever.  I guess starting a Ph.D. program is never difficult but the fall was even greater for me when you think you have it all.  And now being in New York City, I realize that I love all that it has to offer but hate that it’s a rich man’s city.  I’ll save my rant on the highlights and lowlights of NYC for another time though.

I book my flight to Cartagena two weeks before I depart.  And I’m traveling alone. This is the adventure and spontaneity I cultivated to love.  Never mind the fact that most people would think it suspicious (“Hmm… a chemist going to Colombia alone with only a backpack and cash”), but I had my destination and journey set.  Traveling alone is wonderful, and I recommend everyone to try it at least once.  You will be forced to meet and interact with people you wouldn’t have interacted with otherwise, you get to do what YOU want to really do when you want to do it, and you are able to reflect and contemplate about things you might not be able to do in company.  That being said, I do like to travel with others as well; it just makes for a different experience.

Having the skin color I do while traveling proves to be a gift.  Landing in Cartagena’s airport made me realize I am a chameleon; right away, the security officers asked to see my Colombian passport.  Jaja, no… soy de Nueva York.  And probably being a male helps too.  Walking around the streets in Cartagena, I was never harassed.  In fact, it was so interesting when I pulled out my monstrous DSLR camera because suddenly I was a tourist, and only then did I get more attention.  The same happened to me when I was in Brazil: while in a favela tour group, some locals pointed at me and said, “Brasileiro, Brasileiro!”

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Most beautiful old city I’ve seen

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On top of Castillo San Felipe de Barajas

Colombia reminds me of a spicier version of Miami (if that’s even possible).  Constant salsa music blasting from the bars into the streets, even MORE humid, hot weather, and delicious empanadas at every corner.  The people are much friendlier as well.  From the divorced woman sitting next to me on the plane talking about revisiting Colombia again after 10 years and not knowing what to expect to the 40-year-old man approaching me to talk about football and youth, people seemed much less hesitant to engage in conversation.  Perhaps living in big cities like NYC closes us off and makes us harder individuals.

The highlight of my trip was taking a 2-hour boat ride away from Cartagena to las Islas Rosario, where you only get electricity, in the form of a single outlet, for a few hours of the day.   I fell asleep at night to the waves rolling in and out in a bungalow, something you would picture on the set of Gilligan’s Island.  How incredible it felt to be so disconnected from the rest of the world.  I met these two beautiful German travelers, and we dove in the water at night and saw the bioluminescent plankton.  You move your hand and all of the plankton glow around it.  Probably one of the most interesting and breathtaking moments I have ever experienced.

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Volcán de Lodo El Totumo

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Emerging out of the mud volcano

I also was able to spend some time exploring the different tourist attractions around Cartagena, one being the mud volcano.  Apparently it is several thousand feet deep but because the density of the mud is so high, your body stays afloat.  It’s quite an interesting feeling and supposedly the minerals and salts are beneficial to the skin.  I imagine it’s similar to the masks women put on in the beauty salons.

And so, my preconceived notions of Colombia are shattered.  I come back to the U.S. with a more open, healthy mind and body.   I still remember my Spanish friend telling me to “work to live, don’t live to work.”  We get so comfortable with our daily routine, eg. 10+ hours of work a day, that it almost irks us to see any change.  Keeping the mind and body stimulated requires an interruption from the norm, which is not necessarily in the form of leaving the country but also in learning a new language, taking a class in graphics design, or trying a new exercise regimen.  Life’s too short to throw away even one day.

I’d like to end this post with a favorite quote of mine, which has never resonated so deeply to me:

“Travel far enough, you meet yourself.”

-David Mitchell

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View from the bungalow


La vida en Madrid

I’m breathing again.

Swept up in 2 weeks of apartment hunting, food scavenging, and bureaucracy handling, the light at the end of this indeterminate black tunnel has arrived.  The flat radiates with charm, with each room possessing its own unique character.  We also have been looking for our 4th roommate for what seems like forever.  Finally we found Daniel, a content man in his late 20’s from Seville working in IBM as a telecommunications engineer O_o.

After I left Lisbon contentedly, I arrived in Madrid.   Madrid epitomizes a European city: the cobblestone streets bordered by small shops, the architecture dating back centuries in the past, and the charm of family-owned restaurants.  Now here for 6 weeks, I can proudly call this city my new home.  Every day I come home from work, I happily enter my flat, turn the burners up, and cook a delicious new meal.  I’ve been learning how to cook so many new, interesting things, like chicken parmesan, fried rice, basil chicken, and more.  Along with being financially independent from my parents, I can call this my first year of true independence.

Plaza Tirso de Molina, right near my flat

Parque Retiro

One of my favorite things about living abroad is the ability to start over.  Every city I’ve lived in is imprinted with so many emotional memories: New York reminds me of the struggle my parents went through to finally move to Long Island; Monterrey resembles the first time stepping on a foreign soil for an extended period; Bangkok strikes a chord in my heart with an unexpected romance.  It’s not that I need to press the reset button, but having a clean slate gives me an incredible feeling of establishing myself again.

Protest in Madrid during the international demonstrations

STORY TIME (After 6 weeks, of course there are plenty of stories to tell)

My landlord had decided to up and leave to Bali.  All of the paperwork and payments we do goes through their vecino MJ, a very friendly and genuine Spanish woman.  Nevertheless, my roomies and I were scared that when we arrived with 4000€ ($6000USD), she would bring gunmen and mug us.  We decided to wait outside with the money instead – who would mug two Americans in front of a crowded street?  After realizing how ridiculous we were being, we ended up exchanging the money safely inside the apartment.  However, that very night when MJ brought all of the money to her place, robbers broke into her apartment!  Fortunately, she had hidden the money in a box of scattegories, so they did not find it!  Lucky her!  Unfortunately they did steal her laptop and cell phone.  Poor MJ…

I have so many stories…from Julianne’s “surprise” birthday party, to playing Taboo in Spanish with my French friends, to the highs and lows of working at CSIC.  I’m going to share my trip to El Escorial because it’s travel, and we all love traveling!  Melissa and I were planning on going to Toledo, but unfortunately the morning train tickets were sold out.  We decided to take a day trip to this small pueblo of the state of Madrid (Madrid is a state and a city).  In El Escorial, there is the famous Monastery for the past kings of Spain.  It has been my favorite museum/palace thus far because it also incorporates the architectural tools used to build the monastery; while walking through you feel like you just jumped back 500 years into the past.   Enjoy the following pictures, as I most certainly did.

Julianne is on the left!

I love my life right now.  I live in the center of a vibrant, bustling European city, where I have never had so much fun before.  It’s exciting every night to taste the atmosphere and see/hear/learn something new.  I bought my tickets to Italy, Turkey, and Switzerland for the next few months, so I will keep you all informed of that next!

El Escorial

Monasterio

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You can skip reading the next section, as it is for individuals who come across my page while looking for a flat in Madrid.

**10 Tips for anyone apartment hunting in Spain (or more specifically Madrid):

1)      Before you arrive in Spain, become familiar with sites like Idealista, Loquo, etc. (don’t even use Easypiso… they spam you and you can’t even contact the owners properly).  Understand that probably 70% of owners will not respond to e-mails, so you must call them using the number posted.  If you can, start setting up appointments before you arrive in Spain. I would recommend organizing listings by “newest first” because a lot of listings have not been taken down even after being rented out.

2)      In order to start calling people, you need a phone, right?  I recommend getting a fixed plan instead of pay as you go because within 2 weeks I spent more than 50€ on just recharging the phone’s minutes.   This is only possible if you are staying for 18 months or if you have a phone which you can switch the SIM card.  In the long run, you might end up saving money going with a fixed plan.

3)      If your Spanish sucks, you need to either A) improve it or B) find someone to help you who does speak Spanish well.  Most Spaniards don’t want to deal with you in English, so having a high level of proficiency is an advantage.  Remember, talking to someone over the phone is much more difficult than speaking to someone in person.

4)      If you see more than two numbers posted for phone numbers, first try the number with the 9 in front instead of the 6 because 9 is a landline, and it is cheaper to call a landline.  When you call using pay as you go, you pay for your minutes and the other person’s minutes.

5)      Don’t go through an agencia or inmobilario unless you are filthy rich and are able to part with a month’s rent for using their services.

6)      The weekends are your friend.  More people are free on the weekends, and owners would be willing to show it to you at whatever time on the weekends, so don’t go on vacation in a spa because you think no one is available.

7)      If you want to live in Madrid center, learn that you do get what you pay for.  It is expensive to live in the center, and you will probably pay for the space in m2 as well.  All of you U.S. Americans who are used to a lot of space, well… this is Europe, and you might not get the space you wanted.   Some flats don’t even have living rooms!

8)      Be flexible about where you want to live.  I really wanted to be near Chueca and Gran Via, but then had to expand my scope and found a really nice flat 2 stops away from Gran Via.  It is still within walking distance!

9)      You can either be looking for a flat or a room.  If you want a flat, most owners require a year contract, but some will shorten the length if you beg.  Living with friends is nice, so don’t forget the choice to find a furnished apartment.

10)   Be friendly.  No one wants to rent out a room or flat to someone who is stuck-up or is going to cause problems.  People can tell you are fake within minutes.  Hopefully you have an awesome personality.


Oi, estou em Lisboa!

Leaving Amsterdam left me completely disheartened; even in the small amount of time I spent in the small town, I grew attached to the people, the city.  I didn’t even expect to enjoy it because I don’t like to smoke (“WHAT?! You went to Amsterdam and didn’t smoke?”).  I foresee myself living there in the near future (which is exactly what I said about Madrid in 2007 when I visited it… and now I’m moving there).  If you want to get something done, as cliché as it sounds, set your mind to it, be determined and do it.  Don’t let anyone or anything hold you back from achieving your dreams.  I’m living my dream right now and couldn’t be any happier.

After rereading the introduction of Paolo Coelho’s The Alchemist, he indicates four common reasons why most people don’t go about achieving their dreams.  Summed up they are:

 1)      Impossibility. From childhood onward, we are told everything is impossible, and with the years, layers of prejudice, fear, and guilt impede us.

2)      Love. The second obstacle described is love; we don’t want to abandon those whom we care for dearly, but in the end if they were to love us, shouldn’t they want us to be happy.  I believe this reason is the most prevalent one people face.

3)      Fear.  Oh how comfortable it is to live in one place forever and not have to even face the possibility of failure.  “The secret of life is to fall seven times and to get up eight times.”

4)      Renouncement.   Sometimes we are so close, yet we give up when the finish line is a step away.  Persistency will pay off in the end.

Lisboa.  What an interesting Portuguese city it is.  While reminding me of a less tropical version of Brazil, Portugal has a European aura that transcends its streets.  To my great surprise, I was able to communicate very effectively with the locals only after taking 4 months of Portuguese at UMiami.  I don’t think I’ve ever had better-tasting fish than I’ve had here, while at the same time I was ecstatic to see one of my favorite snacks around: coxinha de frango (a crispy, fluffy layer of breading around diced chicken).  The city by terrain is very hilly… I don’t understand how elderly people walk up these mountainous streets daily.

Portuguese flag waving above the city

I decided to take a day trip to Sintra, a city filled with gardens, castles, and cobble-stoned streets.  It took around an hour to get there by train.  The streets are lovely to look at, but walking on them gets frustrating after a while.  I really enjoyed visiting Quinta da Regaleira, which consisted of a romantic palace and castle, secret underground caverns, as well as luxurious parks.   I then took an hour long bus ride to Cabo da Roca, the westernmost point in continental Europe.  What a site to see!  And to think that across the massive ocean lie all of my friends and family.  Looking into the horizon indicates to me a clash of infinite and finite, the elements of earth and air, and the thoughts of possible and impossible.

Palace

 

Image from the bottom of the spiral staircase

 

I had to step across those stones, careful not to fall into the murky, green water!

While I was at Cabo da Roca, I met this Italian who was also traveling alone.  He wanted to go to Lisbon as well, and so he offered me a ride in his rental car.  Traveling and meeting generous people renews my faith in humanity and the kindness one stranger can have towards another.  I avoided having to take a bus and train.  We drove along the coast of Portugal: a longer, but more scenic view.  The coast reminded me of a resort, like driving down Ocean Drive in Miami Beach, minus all of the chongas.   We got to Lisbon within an hour, and befriended other people at the hostel.  It was so enlighteningly diverse to see the group of people we went out with: an American, an Italian, a Hungarian, a Brit, a Portuguese, and a Frenchie.  We laughed, ate, and drank the night away in Barrio Alto, a very hip scene in Lisbon.

Cabo da roca

Next post: Madrid!


I AMsterdam

I am Amsterdam.

This city is defined by its people and culture, like every other city in the world.  It is liberal, smart, fun, humble, and witty.

One intriguing cultural facet I discovered through talking to the locals and tour guides is that the people of the Netherlands are very humble about consumerism.  People do not show off their money like it is like the board game of Life, where whoever has the most money in the end wins.  In fact, it is actually looked down upon to possess a luxury car or buy fancy clothes because it is not a very practical lifestyle.  There is only one Gucci in all of the country; my guess is that it doesn’t fare too well.  This was very surprising to me (and I think to most Americans) because living in a place like Miami, we see that we don’t own our possessions: our possessions own us.

I went on an incredible bike tour today.  I couldn’t stop smiling while I was biking over the beautiful canals laced with scenic flora for hours.  At the end of the trip, I asked a guy who worked with the company if he could give me change for a 50 because I wanted to tip the tour guide (who, apparently, only gets paid €7/hour).  He accidently gave me €60, and so I decided not to tell him and give the extra money to the tour guide instead.

Red Light District

Let's bring mass bicycle transit to the U.S.

The Red Light District.  It possesses an exaggerated myth that did not meet my expectations.  Nearly naked women dancing in windows where men can pay money to do whatever with them, while appealing, did not make me tremble with culture shock.  Thailand was much more extreme.  I did enjoy seeing coffee shops that let people openly smoke marijuana because it represents a new level of freedom.

Could the United States of America ever be like Amsterdam?  No, because we are a country run by religious zealots who are too concerned that global warming is a myth, that evolution is false, and that we should be having national days of prayer to solve our country’s problems.  I believe by legalizing prostitution and a drug like marijuana, the wrong people don’t have to end up in jails (wasting the tax payers’ dollars), and also the government can earn some extra money from taxing these things.  Aren’t we in a major deficit right now…?  America, take that stick out of your ass and loosen up.

One of the many gorgeous canals

Such beautiful architecture


Mexico, Thailand, Argentina and now… Spain?

I am an avid traveler, a nomad to the core, and a passionate learner.

In a few days, I will be leaving the U.S. to relocate overseas for the 4th time in my adult life.  I first ventured abroad to Monterrey, Mexico for 4 months as an exchange student in 2009 (I should have been there longer, but the Swine flu epidemic curtailed my time), followed by a 3-month chemistry internship in Bangkok, Thailand.  A year later, I traversed the seas to Buenos Aires, Argentina while working at the University of Buenos Aires.

One of my favorite quotations, perfectly articulated by Mark Twain, reads, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness…”  What exactly happens to someone when he or she travels and why does it happen?  We learn with our 5 senses that the world is not as small as we thought it once was, that no matter how much we think we know, there’s always something else to be said from a different perspective.  Then there’s the excitement of not knowing what’s coming next: ping-pong now has an entirely new meaning, the word boludo becomes part of your vocabulary, and the taste of home-cooked cabrito never leaves your mouth.

I am a Fulbright fellow going to Spain for 9 months.  The amount that I will learn and the knowledge I will be able to share within this time will be unequivocal.  While I will be learning to synthesize a new species of compounds called chromanes, I also intend to volunteer my time with the Cruz Roja Española and helping to teach English to natives.  I want to be kept busy constantly.

I leave New York with the same sanguine attitude I left for the other countries.  Estoy listo para una experiencia inolvidable.

Bye-bye New York home!

I hope I can find Indian spices in Madrid

My journey begins in Amsterdam and then to Lisbon.  Let the adventure begin!


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