Sunday, April 12, 2015

Spain - Transport woes in Sevilla

In Spain, most touristy sights don't open till 9:30 or even 10:00am. Which was just as well, since it gave us a little more time to sleep in. We walked to the cathedral to take some touristy shots before heading to Plaza Nueva, where we met up with some of our hostel friends Steph and Jonathan, Eva and Bobby. The hostel had advertised a free walking tour that would commence at 11am. Either the Spanish went by Spanish time (i.e. very late) or perhaps it was a Sunday and the guide decided to take the day off, we didn't know. The walking tour never happened. In any case, our group took it upon ourselves to do some sightseeing of our own. We initially wanted to check out the Hospital de la Caridad because it closed at 12:30pm today, but walked past the Royal Alcazar (royal palace) on our way. Michaela, Sarah and I decided to hop in line to see the palace over the hospital. Due to hiccups in our travel plans, we had only half a day left in Sevilla, so we had time for just ONE tourist attraction. And c'mon, of course it had to be the palace. The palace over the hospital any day. Sevilla definitely deserves a visit of 2 or more days, but oh well,  it is what it is. Jonathan and Steph parted ways with the rest of us, while we got our tickets to see the Alcazar. Built in the 10th century for the governors of the Moorish state, it was extensively rebuilt in the 14th century under the rule of the Christian king Pedro I. The palace was elaborately decorated in the Mudejar style, which is a mix of Islamic and Christian elements, complete with colorful ceramic tiles, lush gardens, open courtyards and watery pools. We didn't regret picking this as our main sightseeing, only that we didn't have more time to stroll through the gardens on this beautiful day.

We rushed back to the hostel to collect our belongings before hopping into a taxi to head to the airport. Here, our troubles with transportation resumed. When changing our travel itinerary, all rebookings were done hastily, on websites that were fully in Spanish. Michaela and I had spent a lot of time and frustration cutting and pasting sections of the websites to Google Translate. Somewhere along the way, we had booked our flights out of Jerez, a different city one hour away, instead of Sevilla. And there was no way to change our flights as the next flight out of Jerez was two days later, and all flights out of Sevilla were booked solid. This meant we would miss at least a day or even two in Barcelona, which was to be our next destination. Us girls sat down in much defeat, typing furious on our various devices, trying to figure out the next best plan. In the end, we decided to reverse our itinerary, which was to catch a train to see Madrid first before going to Barcelona. Actually this worked out really well for me, as I eventually fly out of Barcelona anyway. But it meant changing train tickets, rebooking hostel reservations and coughing up more Euros. In any case, we were finally on our way again.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Spain - Sangrias in Sevilla

Michaela partied all night, so I woke up early this morning to visit Malaga's cathedral and tour the Carmen-Thyssen museum by myself. I got hopelessly lost trying to find my way back to the hostel but luckily I jumped into one of the museums to ask for directions, slightly embarrassed at my ineptitude with a regular old fashioned paper map.

Michaela and I met up again to leave for the Malaga airport to pick Sarah up. Even though her flight was delayed in Paris, we narrowly escaped missing our 4pm train to Sevilla, amidst high levels of stress and panic... However, it was a lovely 2hr train ride to the city of Sevilla, and in high spirits, we checked into the quaint and comfortable little hostel called the Triana Backpackers.

The Spanish have siestas between 2-5pm every afternoon. As a result, dinner time starts really late in the night. We strolled around the streets that night in search for a good place for dinner and chanced upon a pretty square surrounded by charming restaurants. We randomly picked out one for their sangria and Andalusian paella, and also had some really delicious starters - spinach, cod and oxtail croquettes and salmon salad with mango and pear.

We wanted to catch a flamenco performance but it was past midnight when we were done, so we strolled back towards our hostel. While crossing the bridge, we caught sight of a party cruise boat sailing down he river. We waited till they were under the bridge before we yelled Hola to all the guests on the boat, the sangrias definitely kicking in. The girls had some churros filled with Nutella for dessert, but I had to pass since I felt like Buddha with his big round belly. Sleeping horizontally proved to be a challenge for me that night.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Spain - ATMs and Malaga

My Bank of America credit card got ate up by a stupid ATM machine this morning. Michaela and I arrived, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at the Madrid train station, ecstatic to be embarking on our travels that will begin in Malaga. Michaela had reassured me she always got cash out of the ATMs, so before I arrived in Spain, I had only 100€ on me.

No problem, except when I inserted my credit card into the frikkin' machine this morning, the screen went blank and rebooted back to the homepage. As if denying my existence. As if me and my card never happened. And to add salt to the wound, Michaela had gotten cash out of the same ATM two seconds before me!

I took a deep breath and tried very hard not to panic. There was a service hotline to dial, which I did. But of course, the automated line was in full fledged Spanish. Luckily, there was an older Spanish gentleman in line. We got him on the phone and he started to explain my situation. From his expressions and body language, plus multiple outbursts of "Balle, balle!" ( which means OK) I thanked God profusely under my breath. This man was going to make everything all right!

He got off my phone and helpfully explained that I didn't have to worry about my card. The bank will retrieve and destroy my card in the next hour so nobody will have access to it. But, he counseled in all seriousness, that I would have to call my bank next to inform them of what happened. He proceeded to use the machine himself.

Great! I guess that was good news, but it didn't solve my cashless, cardless problem. And my train leaves in the next twenty minutes, so there's no sitting around waiting for the technician to come open up the machine. I dialed Bank of America and wrestled with the frikkin' automated menu for the next twenty minutes before getting a real person on the line. This was not how I had envisioned using the 100 minutes on my international roaming plan. And ALL the help they could offer me was to mail a new card to my US address in the next 5-7 days. Not helpful, Bank of America. I'm canceling my accounts with you when I get home.

Luckily, I still had my Discover credit card with me, although most Spanish merchants haven't really  recognized Discover as a major line of credit yet. But at least I could use the card at ATMs. Next time, I'll choose ATMs located next to their banks, so if this happened again, I could demand the bank open the machine and return my card immediately.

We arrived in Malaga and checked into the Oasis Backpackers' hostel to put up in an 8-bed all girls' dorm. The hostel has a nice spunky rooftop bar, where we had a couple of cerveza before meeting up with Anna, Michaela's cute little English friend, to tour the Alcazaba, a Moorish influenced castle built upon Roman foundations. The view from the top of the castle was amazing, probably one of the best places to get awesome panoramic views of Malaga.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Spain - Arriving in Madrid

I landed at the Barcelona airport one hour after the scheduled time. The flight was delayed and held up in queue before taking off. It was as if all my good fortune had run out. I was supposed to land at 7:15am, make my way to the Barcelona train station, which was 30 minutes away, to catch an 11am train to Madrid to meet up with Michaela. Even with the one hour delay you would think that gave me plenty of time to get to the train station right? Wrong.

I had one checked bag. I sailed past immigration and hurried to the belt to collect my backpack. Unfortunately, the Catalans have a different sense of time, in other words, no sense of urgency at all. Which was admirable, except I had a train to catch. My bag took what seemed like eternity to get to me, and by the time I hopped into a taxi, it was half past 9. And then with the early morning traffic, I barely made it to the train station on time. To me at least. I arrived at 15 minutes past 10, with plenty of time to spare. But I always like to be early just so I don't stress out. Everything went fine, I got to the Madrid station and stepped out into really chilly weather. I hadn't brought a thicker coat for want of space in my backpack, but also it was supposed to be warmer! I had packed sun dresses, skirts and tank tops! It was rainy and chilly outside. Refrains of "The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain" ran through my head.

The next hiccup came in the form of communication. Or the lack of. I couldn't get a hold of Michaela. I haven't figured out why my international roaming for data wasn't quite working and Michaela could only be reached via Whatsapp. So I couldn't call her. In our last communication, she said she'd find a place with free Wifi and text me where to meet. So I'm at the station, and still no texts from her. I didn't think to get her address so I couldn't even cab to her place and wait for her there. Some savvy traveller I was. I walked around the station and found the entrance to the Metro station. I thought, this would be the best place to wait since she was probably going to get here by the subway. So I hung around, crossed my fingers hoping for the best. To my relief, not too long after, I heard a shout from afar.


Michaela ran towards me and gave me a big hug, a little wet from the rain. After exiting the metro, she had gotten lost for 30 minutes trying to find her way to the train station. But she was here. We made our way to her apartment to drop off my belongings before heading out to dinner. We made our way to Plaza Mayor to have coffee and people watch, and strolled into the Mercado San Miguel to drool over the food extravaganza. The Mercado San Miguel is a food market that sold tapas, dessert, mojitos, sangrias. My favorite stall sold trays upon trays of olives. Olives wrapped in bacon, olives stuffed with ham, olives with sun dried tomatoes, olives with anchovies. You name it, they got it. The only reason we didn't get anything was because we were going to return to Madrid later in the trip with more friends and we thought we should all enjoy this experience together.

All seemed to end well for the day. We were supposed to meet her friend Sarah tomorrow in Malaga, and had booked the next few train tickets and hostel accommodations in advance. Unfortunately, Michaela got a text from Sarah who just found out she had booked the wrong tickets and was only going to arrive the day after. Which basically meant that all our schedules were thrown off by one day. We tried not to panic as we scrambled to make new plans for travel. We finally got our schedule figured out, went online to change our train tickets and to purchase new ones when our cards got declined. Every single one of them. Credit, debit, Visa, Master, Discover. My Bank of America card got put on hold because I had made three transactions in a row and was reported as "suspicious activity". Even though I had called before I left the U.S. to notify them of my travel plans. I mean, I appreciate the bank's diligence but really, this was not cool. Especially after I had responded to their email, text message and call to confirm that I had indeed made those transactions. They told me to try again in 10 minutes, but I was unable to use my card for the rest of the night. Undaunted, Michaela and I decide to try to purchase the tickets at the train station in Malaga as soon as we got there the next morning. We went to bed close to midnight because of all the shenanigans even though we had to be up early the next morning to catch a 7am train. Oh well, the trials and tribulations of traveling. C'est la vie!

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Hola España!

Sitting in the airport again. Today marks 4 months since Justin's death. I am leaving for Barcelona in about an hour. I have had just about the best experiences along the way today. My Mr. Uber driver was super friendly and we chatted the entire way to the airport. He had a pair of binoculars sitting on his dashboard and I just had to ask if he was an avid birder like me. It turns out that he is an insurance claims agent, and uses his binoculars to survey roof damage.

The check-in agent who helped me with my bag was a jolly old man, but he had me a little uncertain at the beginning. All I said was "Excuse me sir, but I need help with my bag." And he stared at me for a good 30 seconds without a word. Now 30 seconds may seem like a short time, but when you're expecting a reply that can be one helluva an awkward pause. But really, he was just messing with me. He broke the silence and chuckled, "You have the cutest little face! You remind me of my granddaughter." Then the security checkpoint line was the shortest I have ever been in. I was through in a record breaking under-ten-minutes. Talk about stress free travel. Another traveler behind me asked the TSA agent for a band aid. I thought, for all the good fortune I've had so far, I think I'm going to pass it on. I reached into my purse and fished out a band aid for him. Even so, I was rewarded yet again in the next hour with commission-free currency exchange. I had sought out the little currency exchange booth but the lady was just about to take a 30minute break. She said if I wasn't in a hurry, I could wait for her to return. I agreed since I had plenty of time to spare anyway. And as if she felt bad for making me wait, she told me when I returned she wouldn't charge me a fee for the transaction. Score! But wait for it. As the plane to Barcelona closed it doors to the gate, I realized I was going to be the only one sitting in a row of three seats. Goodnight folks, I'm ready to sprawl out for bedtime.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Singapore - Birding in the Southern Ridges

One more bird watching trip before I leave tomorrow. I had enthusiastically signed up for a bird watch walk with the Nature Society some weeks ago, and regretted the decision last night. The walk will start promptly at 7:30 in the morning, and I was still up at 1am the night before. I had received group emails from people backing out of the trip, and was very tempted to do the same. In the end, I decided that it was my last day in Singapore, possibly my last birdwatching trip for a good while, so I bit the bullet as I set my alarm for 5am the next morning.

Obviously this was going to be a group walk. I hadn't forgotten my lesson about birdwatching with company. But I hadn't expected a crowd this size as I got out of the cab at the group's meeting point. There must have been over twenty people, adults and children alike. I had forgotten this was the tail end of the March week-long school holidays. Families were out with a vengeance, trying to make the most out of the last couple of days of the break. My heart sank as I counted the number of children present. Could they possibly walk in the silence and reverence that was required on such a journey? There wasn't anything I could do but follow the two guides as the tour started. Luckily, they decided to split the group into two. I quickly jumped in to join the first group after gauging that there were less children than in the other.

For the first stop, the guide brought us to the Henderson Waves Bridge, built at the tree top canopy level. The morning sun blazed a bright red, but we were able to gaze directly at it because of the hazy atmosphere. Within minutes, we spotted a collared kingfisher perched high on the branches. We also saw the very common Yellow Vented Bulbul, which we would consistently see throughout the walk today. Several people came equipped with their fancy cameras with their even fancier bulky lenses. I half wished I had borrowed my dad's until I remembered that his lens weren't powerful enough for long distances. I watched enviously at the little boy standing next to me, big-ass camera slung around his neck, aiming his shutter at the beautiful pink necked green pigeons, trigger happy and clicking away. Do I really have to pick up another hobby for my latest hobby??

Next, we were led through the treetop canopy walk on the Southern Ridges. Adding to my life list was the Racket-Tailed Drongo, also a fairly common but splendid sight - dark glossy black, with two single long tail feathers, falling like a regal train down its back.

Halfway through the walk I gave up trying to keep up with my group. They forged ahead even as I fell behind, taking my time to seek out the birds that I heard but could not see. By this time, the lesson was firmly etched into my brain - birdwatching is a solitary activity. Period. No ifs or buts. It was when I fell behind that I saw the most. A couple other stragglers from my group were by no doubt, serious birders themselves. I hung around them in silence, as I decided with a sweeping glance they were more experienced and seasoned birders. My patience paid off as one of them spotted a dollarbird in a far off tree. Through my binoculars I could only make out its bright and thick orange bill. As I pulled out my newly purchased Singapore Birds Field Guide to confirm my sighting, another guy pointed out the four long-tailed parakeets perched at the very top of another tree. Man, was I glad I stuck around! These guys are good! In the following fifteen minutes, we walked into a clearing and proceeded to spot two common flamebacks, multiple pairs of common hill mynas, and even a lineated Barbet!

By now, the sun had come out in full force and most of us decided to call it a day. One of the guys had struck a conversation with me, and when I described my birding experiences in Singapore thus far he remarked, "Wow, you're quite an adventurous girl!" To which I had no reply. I had never pictured myself that way, certainly not in Singapore where it is very safe to travel around on your own, by and large. But I felt a little flattered and a lot more confident.

I can be alone, I may actually have the courage to be on my own.

Bird list: collared kingfisher, yellow-vented Bulbul, Pink necked Green pigeon, olive-backed sunbird, oriental Dollarbird, long-tailed Parakeets, Javan Mynas, Common Hill Mynas, Dark-necked Tailorbird (?), Lineated Barbet, Common Flameback, Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, Black-naped Oriole, Asian Glossy Starling

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Singapore - Birding at Botanic Gardens

Having had a partner around for so long, being alone takes some getting used to. Justin and I were inseparable, we had been together for 8 years. So excuse me if I feel weird eating at a restaurant all by myself, feeling self conscious, thinking that I possibly look very much like a loser to inquisitive onlookers. In the last couple of weeks, my single and alone status has grown on me. I can do things on my own again and not give two hoots about what people think.

I am stronger than I give myself credit for.

Today I ventured out to the Botanic Gardens to do more birdwatching. It is one activity you have to do alone, as I have come to realize. The night before I had hesitantly agreed to let my friend accompany me in the morning. He had just returned from a trip to Cuba and NYC, and was perhaps just a tad too eager to share his experiences. I was also too polite to stop him, even as my eyes darted from tree to tree, and my attention wavered whenever I heard a birdcall. I couldn't do my usual note taking as I was not able to watch the birds long enough to make clear observations. With company, I felt pressed to keep moving. My friend redeemed himself with his photography skills, taking great pictures of the birds we spotted. I also saw some new birds for my life list today, which made me feel like my day wasn't a total bust. Up on a palm tree, dozens of Asian glossy starlings gathered together, their bright crimson eyes watching the skies, their bluish black bodies glistening in the sunlight. On another tree, I caught sight of a gorgeous Blue-tailed Bee-eater, his body a riot of colors, fading from orange, to yellow, to green, to blue. How is Mother Nature such an incredibly talented artist? How have I never seen such birds all my life, growing up in this garden city that is Singapore?

Bird list: yellow-vented Bulbul, Spotted Dove, Blue-tailed Bee-eater, Pacific Swallow, Brahminy Kites, Lesser Whistling Ducks, Asian Glossy Starlings, White breasted Waterhen, Olive backed Sunbird, Rock Pigeons, House Sparrow, Eurasian Tree Sparrow, Ashy tailorbird (?), Black-naped Oriole